Chosen in Christ – Ephesians 1:4

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For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love

Ephesians 1:4 New International Version (NIV)

Chosen in Christ

One of the most controversial doctrines of the Christian faith is election – the belief that God has chosen some for salvation and not others.  ‘That’s not fair,’ many say.  ‘Why doesn’t he choose everybody?’ is a frequent question.  Some of the questions cannot be answered – we are, after all, dealing with an infinite God whose ways are often beyond our understanding.  There are vital things about election that we can understand, however, because God has revealed them to us.

For the Christian, election is in fact a doctrine that is full of encouragement – a source of joy and thanksgiving, not a perplexing puzzle.  Let’s consider some of these great truths as we turn to Ephesians 1:4 Chosen in Christ

1. The nature of election

In v3 Paul gives thanks to God the Father for ‘every spiritual blessing in Christ’.  Salvation is rich and wonderful.  Why do we receive such bounty?  The answer is given in v4 ‘For he chose us in him…’  The origin of salvation is not in us but in the God who elects.  Note 4 elements:

(i). It is sovereign.  ‘he chose us’.  The reference is to ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v3).  This does not exclude the Son and the Holy Spirit since all the persons of the Trinity are involved in all God’s works, but it is particularly the Father to whom election is ascribed.

By its very nature, this action is an exercise of sovereign authority.  The Father selects, sets apart for himself, a certain group of people.  From start to finish this is God’s work.  It is a bestowing of grace – love to the utterly undeserving.  It is something done freely by God, not conditioned in any way by the objects of his choice.  This is underlined by Paul in Romans 8:29 ‘those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son’.  There ‘foreknowledge’ indicates the inauguration of a relationship of redeeming love that will result in salvation.

(ii). It is personal.  ‘he chose us’.  Who is in view?  This cannot be confined to Paul and his original readers.  The whole description is cast in terms of the universal church and the reference is clearly to all believers.  But the choice was exercised before they were believers.  Indeed most of those to whom Paul refers had not yet been born.  The biblical evidence forces us to conclude that it is sinners whom God has elected.  This fits with Romans 5:8 ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’.  This is the wonder of grace – it is for the unworthy.

God’s gracious election does not apply to a faceless multitude but to specific individuals.  Those saved can delight in the personal love of God that they experience.  Notice Paul’s reference in Galatians 2:20 to ‘the Son of God who loved me’.  Election is not a cold, impersonal decree.

(iii). It is Christ-centred.  ‘he chose us in him’.  The identity of the one in whom we are chosen is clear from v3.  It is in Christ.  He is the foundation of election.

What does it mean to be chosen in Christ?  We find in the New Testament clear evidence of a people being given to Christ in eternity.  As he prays to the Father, he refers in John 17:6 to ‘those you have given me out of the world’.  He says that he will ‘give eternal life to all those you have given him’ (v2).  We also have a reference in Revelation 17:8 to names ‘written in the book of life from the creation of the world’.

For those given to him, the Son of God undertook to do all that is necessary for their salvation.  In the plan of God laid before creation he took on the role of the Representative and Surety of his people – ‘he is the surety [or ‘guarantee’] of a better covenant’ (Hebrews 7:22).  Christ assumes our debt of sin and at the cross discharges that debt fully.  The whole of salvation centres on the person and work of Christ.

(iv). It is eternal.  That is the significance of the words ‘before the creation of the world’.  Before ‘time’ even existed, only the timeless God existed.  Election is an eternal decree of God that is not dependent on any of his creatures.  As a result, it is certain to be fulfilled.  That is a great source of reassurance to his people.  Our sins and failures, and there are many of them, do not thwart his purposes.

This statement also underlines the fact that election is not due to any merit in us.  Think of the contrasting examples of Jacob and Esau: Romans 9:11 tells us that God chose Jacob ‘before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might stand’.  Election is entirely by grace.

2. The purpose of election

Our all-wise God does all things for a purpose – nothing is random or by chance.  We can therefore be sure that election is purposeful.  The ultimate purpose of all of God’s works is the manifestation of his own glory.  He does, however, also have other purposes in what he does.  In this verse, Paul indicates what we could call the proximate purpose of election.  He mentions two aspects of it:

(i). Holiness.  ‘he chose us to be holy’.  The outworking of the decree of election is the redemptive work of Christ which transforms those God chooses into holy people.  We are changed from sinners into those who increasingly share in the holiness of God.  As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 ‘It is God’s will that you should be holy’.  At conversion sinners are declared to be holy in God’s sight.  That is the justification that changes our standing in relation to God’s law.  Following on from that, sinners are throughout their lives made holy in thought, word and action.  That is lifelong sanctification, the work of the Holy Spirit in us as we use the means of grace that God has provided.  Ultimately, beyond this life, our holiness will be complete as we experience glorification.  All this flows from election.

(ii). Fellowship.  ‘in his sight’ or ‘in his presence’.  This indicates that those who are made holy are also brought into personal fellowship with our gracious God.  That is the supreme privilege conferred by election.  We have living communion with the Lord.  As John states in 1 John 1:3 ‘our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ’.  As our holiness grows, so does the closeness of our fellowship.  That is a great cause for thanksgiving and a stimulus to seek greater holiness, as we anticipate the day of perfection in glory.

David McKay

The Saviour transfigured – Mark 9:2-10

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The Transfiguration
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.

Mark 9:2-10

The Saviour transfigured

‘I wish I had been there’.  Are there events in the Bible that make you wish you had been there?  Maybe the crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of the Law at Sinai, David defeating Goliath, or in the New Testament, the birth of Jesus or the raising of Lazarus?  One of the most striking episodes in the Gospels, and one which left a deep imprint on the memories of those who were there, was the transfiguration of Jesus – what would it have been like to be there?

In Mark 9:1 Jesus speaks about some people not tasting death before they see ‘the kingdom of God come with power’.  Immediately afterwards three disciples accompany him to the top of a high mountain and there see something of the glory of the King and his kingdom.  Let’s consider Mark 9:2-10 The Saviour transfigured.

1. His transformation

During the whole of his ministry on earth Jesus appeared to be just like any other man.  He grew up from a child and lived a normal human life, sharing our human nature with the sole exception of sin.  Although he was the Son of God, nevertheless, as Paul says, ‘he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men’ (Philippians 2:7).  He veiled his divine glory for the period of his humiliation on earth.  He never ceased for a moment, however, to be the perfect reflection of his Father.  He was ‘the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’ (Hebrews 1:3).

The eternal Word (John 1:1) came in servant form.  On the mountain top, however, 3 disciples were privileged to see something of the radiance of the Son of God.  On the mountain, away from the other disciples, the veil was partly drawn aside: ‘he was transfigured before them’ (v2).  Each evangelist describes it in his own way.  Mark says, ‘his clothes became dazzling white’ (v3), using the homely image of a bleacher.  According to Luke, his clothes became ‘as bright as a flash of lightning’ (Luke 9:29).  In Matthew’s account, ‘his face shone like the sun’ (Matthew 17:2).  What the 3 disciples saw was almost beyond description.

The language used in the Gospels draws on the description of the ‘Ancient of Days’ in Daniel 7:9.  It is the very glory of deity, an indication of Jesus’ true identity.  Peter writes later that ‘we were eyewitnesses of his majesty’ (2 Peter 1:16).  He is the eternal Son of God, sovereign and glorious.  Here we have a foretaste of the glory to come at his resurrection and, ultimately, at the Last Day when he returns.  The suffering and death of the Saviour should not blind us to his deity and glory.  He is worthy of all of our worship and service.

2. His conversation

At the transfiguration, Jesus is not alone.  As v4 tells us, ‘there appeared before them Elijah and Moses’.  They represent the Prophets and the Law, summing up the whole of the Old Testament.  Their presence at this crucial event is a visible token that what they spoke and wrote about is fulfilled in Jesus.  They were permitted to appear with him and also they ‘were talking with Jesus’.  Here is an indication of the reality and the closeness of the fellowship enjoyed in heaven, even before the final resurrection.  That surely is encouraging knowledge for us to have.

What was the subject of their conversation?  We are told in Luke 9:31 ‘They spoke about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem’.  The focus is on Jesus’ death.  Notice how it is described: it is (literally) ‘his exodus’.  His leading the people of God out of the bondage of sin was foreshadowed in the bringing of Israel out of Egypt.  In Jesus there is true liberation – as he says in John 8:36, ‘if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’.  In him, God’s eternal plan of salvation is being brought to fulfilment.  In his conversation with Elijah and Moses, there is a joyful anticipation of victory at the cross and the empty tomb.

3. His vindication

In v7 we are told ‘a cloud appeared and enveloped them’.  It is a manifestation of the presence of God, as in the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites during the exodus.  In it, God reveals himself yet at the same time veils himself.  There is also a ‘voice’ (v7), again a reminder of the voice heard at the giving of the Law at Sinai (Exodus 24:16).  The transfiguration recalls in so many ways God’s meeting with his people at Sinai, again at a mountain.

The voice of God speaks an authoritative word: ‘This is my Son whom I love’.  The Father identifies with his Son, as he did at the beginning of his ministry, at his baptism (Mark 1:11).  The words used signify ‘my only-beloved’.  The unique eternal relationship between Father and Son has not been broken by the incarnation.  The Father expresses his full approval and endorsement of the path that Jesus treads.  The Son has successfully resisted all temptations to turn aside and he is now strengthened for his final walk to the cross.  Thus the Saviour is given great encouragement by his Father at this vital moment.  He will lay down his life for his people and will accomplish full salvation for them.

‘Listen to him’ is the Father’s command.  Jesus is the authoritative Revealer and Redeemer.  We must hear and obey him.  The only proper response from us is to submit to his every word and trust in him for salvation.

4. His prohibition

It is no surprise that the 3 disciples are amazed, afraid and confused – who would not have been?  As usual, Peter is the one who speaks, although ‘he did not know what to say’ (v6).  He proposes putting up three shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses, perhaps to prolong this amazing experience.  They have been the privileged recipients of a special revelation of the Lord’s glory and they are still struggling to grasp its significance.  What does it tell them about Jesus’ identity and his mission?  As yet they are not ready to put all the pieces together – only later, with the help of the Holy Spirit will they do so, and realise that he is the Messiah who has come to save.

If you have undergone some amazing experience, your first thought will probably be to tell someone else.  The disciples’ natural reaction is certainly to try to tell others, probably beginning with the rest of the disciples.  Jesus, however, ‘gave them orders not to tell anyone’ (v9).  There is the danger of misunderstanding his true mission and raising expectations he will not fulfil.  An end to the prohibition will come: ‘until the Son of Man had risen from the dead’.  In the light of his completed atonement, the whole story can be told.  We have the duty to proclaim the message of what Jesus has done to save sinners and how we have met with him in a life-changing way.  We have seen his glory and look forward to the full revelation at his return.

David McKay

New every morning – Lamentations 3:19-26

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19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”
25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
    to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.

Lamentations 3:19-26

New every morning

What would you expect when you come to read a book entitled ‘Lamentations’?  Surely it will be nothing but doom and gloom?  You would be partly right – there is much in the book about God’s judgment, but that is not the whole story.  There is also light and gospel hope.

Lamentations was written during the lowest point in the history of Judah – when the nation had been destroyed by the Babylonians and many of the people taken into exile.  The root cause of the disaster was the sin of the people and so they had no-one to blame but themselves.  There are, however, precious words of hope in the midst of the darkness, words that still speak to us today.  Let’s consider together Lamentations 3:19-26 New every morning.

1. The depths of despair

The tone of the first part of the chapter is one of unrelieved gloom.  Here is a man in the depths: ‘made me walk in darkness’ (v2), ‘He has walled me in’ (v7).  The description is vivid.  Even prayer seems futile ‘he shuts out my prayer’ (v8).  The writer (probably Jeremiah) speaks not only for himself, but for the people – ‘we’ (v22), ‘us’ (v40).  The whole nation is passing through the darkness.  Jerusalem has been destroyed and the land laid waste by the Babylonians.  It was the worst time in the nation’s history, hence the reference to ‘the bitterness and the gall’ (v19).

The reason for this suffering is that ‘we have sinned and rebelled’ (v42).  The people of Judah have broken covenant with the Lord and have been serving other gods, and so are now reaping the consequences.  The Babylonians are God’s instruments of judgment.

How can this apply to us in our troubled world, especially in the midst of the coronavirus crisis?  We know it is in God’s hands and is fulfilling his purpose.  The situation is certainly a reminder that we live in a fallen world which is suffering the consequences of human sin.  Surely the Lord is reminding the nations of the consequences of conducting their affairs without reference to him and his law.  We must, however, not fall into the error of Job’s comforters and attribute suffering to God’s judgment on particular individuals.  We are all called to look at our lives and ask if there are things amiss, sins that have crept in, which need to be repented of and forgiven.  God is summoning us all to take stock in the light of his Word.

2. The reason for hope

The prayer of v19ff marks a profound change of mood.  Note v21 ‘this I call to mind and therefore I have hope’.  Light dawns as he focuses attention on the nature of God.  This is what the psalmist does in Psalm 42:6 ‘My soul is downcast within me, therefore I will remember you’.  The danger is that when our soul is downcast, we turn away from the Lord.

When we recognise our sin, we need to focus not on ourselves but on the Lord.  Looking inwards will never change the situation.  All we will see is our sin.  We need to meditate on what the Lord is like, otherwise we will simply go round in a depressing circle.

The key for Jeremiah is ‘great is your faithfulness’ (v23).  That is the ground for his hope – solid ground because God does not change.  He has taken his people into covenant with himself, a relationship not based on their worthiness or effort to be good.  Although they have been unfaithful to their covenant commitment, he remains faithful to his promises ‘for he cannot disown himself’ (2 Timothy 2:13).  We cannot fathom God’s amazing covenant love to us.  Here is our hope, in the Lord alone, because he has not changed since Jeremiah’s day.

3. The answer we need

Note v22, where we read of ‘the Lord’s great love’.  Here is the covenant love of God that forgives sinners when we are spiritually dead and helpless.  His love provided the Substitute we need to bear the consequences of sin.  God ‘gave his only begotten Son’ (John 3:16).  This verse takes us forward to Christ who died ‘the righteous for the unrighteous’ (1 Peter 3:18), not waiting for us to be ‘good enough’ (which is an impossibility anyway).  It was in love that Christ laid down his life for us, and so the Lord’s ‘compassions never fail’ (v22).

Here is sympathetic love and kindness for the helpless.  The Lord Jesus Christ has felt the full power of temptation, without ever sinning.  We have fresh evidence of that love daily – God’s compassions ‘are new every morning’ (v23).  What wonderful reassurance.  It is often in the darkness of the night that our troubles most weigh upon us and seem at their worst.  Here is the encouragement that the dawn will come and bring fresh experiences of God’s love.

That is what we need to hear.  There is still forgiving grace to be found in the Lord when we have failed him.  Satan will try to convince us otherwise, telling us that God must have stopped loving us if we are enduring such a hard time.  We have God’s assurance in a text such as 1 John 1:9 ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins’.  He forgives the repentant.  His promises will not fail, whatever our feelings tell us.  We are to listen to God’s Word, not to our hearts, or to the lies of Satan.

4. The proper response

So what are we to do?  As so often in the Bible, the proper response is described as waiting: ‘I will wait for him’ (v24), ‘it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord’ (v26).  We wait for the Lord’s help and cleansing, the things that we really need.  That does not imply that we are passive or inactive.  There is to be repentance and confession – ‘We have sinned and rebelled’ (v42).  We wait with a sense of anticipation, knowing that he will answer.  We do not give in to despair, but we are to rely on the Lord for the grace we need.  He alone is able to save and forgiveness must come from the God we have offended.  That’s why Jeremiah can say, ‘The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him’ (v25).  We must go to the place where the answer is to be found.

When we understand that he is a gracious, covenant-keeping God, that encourages us to make him ‘my portion’ (v24).  He will never fail us, never betray our trust in him.  The key question is – can you say with Jeremiah, ‘The Lord is my portion’?  

David McKay

How to be right with God – Luke 18:9-14

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The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 (NIV)

How to be right with God

Some diseases and weaknesses run in families, from heart conditions to baldness. The same can be true of moral and spiritual character.  J C Ryle said, ‘We are all naturally self-righteous.  It is the family disease of all the children of Adam’.  Sin is rooted in pride and the exaltation of self.  God is displaced from his rightful position.  Luke 18:9-14 is a parable Jesus told to some who were confident of their own righteousness (v9).  From the two men described, we learn a vital lesson in today’s devotional, Luke 18:9-14 How to be right with God.

1. Two men

We must try to set aside our familiarity with this parable, especially regarding whom we are to admire.  How would Jesus’ audience hear it?  They would hear it in a very different way from us.  Their expectations of these two men would be almost the opposite of ours (and remember, we know how the parable ends).  To the original hearers, Jesus’ parables were often surprising, even shocking.  This one is no exception.  Consider these two men:

(i) The Pharisee: a pillar of the religious establishment.  The Pharisee movement may have had its origins in those who resisted foreign oppressors and their false religion in the period between the Testaments.  They had a history of courageous defence of religious orthodoxy.  The name ‘Pharisees’ may mean ‘pure ones’ and they were certainly very particular about ritual purity.  In Mark 7:3-4 they are said to wash themselves scrupulously and also the vessels they used.  Their obsession was with keeping the Law of Moses.  Many scribes would be Pharisees, from whom the highest standard of conduct would be expected.

(ii) The tax collector: his name and the job he did were regarded with revulsion by the Jews.  He was employed by the Romans, who farmed out tax collecting to ‘tax farmers’ who in turn employed men like this one.  Their aim was to gather as much tax as the market could stand since people did not really know what they owed.  Any money collected above what the Romans required went into the collector’s pocket.  They were known for greed and dishonesty and were regarded as traitors working for the occupying power, Rome.  From such a man Jesus’ hearers would automatically expect the worst.

2. Two prayers

The hearers’ expectations are immediately challenged when the men begin to pray:

(i) The Pharisee: he stands up (v11) – the usual posture for prayer, but Jesus knew his hypocritical desire for public attention.  In Matthew 6:5 Jesus describes Pharisees as ‘hypocrites’ who love standing to pray in prominent positions ‘to be seen by men’.  Very significant is the statement that he ‘prayed about himself’ (or we might even say ‘to himself’).  Though he addresses God, his thoughts never go beyond himself.  What seems to be a prayer of thanksgiving, beginning ‘God I thank you’, is in truth a ‘prayer’ of self-congratulation.  He is a striking example of the kind of person against whom Jesus told this parable.  He was among those ‘who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else’ (v9).  The Pharisee was confident on two grounds:

First, he is not outwardly wicked.  He compares himself with those whose sins were open and public – ‘robbers, evildoers, adulterers’ (v11).  He deals only with what is outward and visible.  He never touches the issue of his heart which is hard and closed to God.  It is always tempting to compare ourselves with obvious sinners, with whom we think we compare well, forgetting God looks on the heart.  To the Pharisee, the tax collector was the lowest of the low: ‘even like this tax collector’.  He despises him utterly.

Second, he performs acts of exceptional piety, going beyond the Law’s requirements.  Instead of the required annual fasting, he fasts ‘twice a week’ (v12), and he tithes all his income, not just the portion specified in the Law.  In doing more than is required, he believes he is building credit with God.  He believes God is pleased with his spiritual state.  It is dangerously easy to forget or ignore Galatians 2:16 ‘a man is not justified by the works of the law’.  We must never forget we cannot be justified by any amount of religious activity or any number of good works.  These can never pay the debt of our sin or place God under obligation to bless us.

(ii) The tax collector: in total contrast to the Pharisee, he ‘stood at a distance’ (v13).  He did not dare to approach God’s holy presence.  His attention is on a holy God, resulting in a profound sense of sin.  He is like Isaiah, whose response to God’s holy presence was to say, ‘Woe is me!’ (Isaiah 6:5).  The tax collector dares claim nothing.  He ‘would not even look up to heaven’, but beats his breast in sorrow for his sins (v13).  Ashamed of his sin, he is desperate for forgiveness.

His words are crucial.  Literally he cries, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner’ – a heart-cry for salvation.  His own sin stands out so clearly, there is no attempt to console himself with the failings of others.  This is true repentance – claiming no merit, making no excuses.  He casts himself on God’s mercy, without any reservation.  He pleads, (literally) ‘God, be propitiated towards me’.  He recognises that sin requires atonement and a price has to be paid for forgiveness.  There is hope, however.   He is standing at the place of sacrifice in the Temple, where sin offerings were made.  Those sacrifices point to Christ the sin-bearer, whom God ‘made to be sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).  The tax collector is in the place where forgiveness is to be found.  If we are to be saved, we must come to the same place.  It is the righteousness of Christ crucified that is needed, not any supposed righteousness of our own.

3. Two results

The real shock comes in v14.  People may have seen nothing wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer, but God’s verdict is the only one that matters.  Jesus’ listeners would be shocked to hear that the tax collector is the one who is ‘justified’.  That means that he was declared righteous in God’s sight, his sins forgiven, a new life granted.  This is possible because at the cross Christ the Substitute paid the price for the sins of his people.  It is the work of God’s sovereign grace, received by faith.  The tax collector is ‘justified’, then and there, and will always remain so.  The Pharisee, far from being right with God, still bears all his sins, without repentance or any sense of need, believing he is righteous.  Jesus drives the lesson home in v14 – we must humble ourselves to seek salvation by God’s grace, truly repenting of sin.  The tax collector found a gracious God who justifies sinners on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice.

David McKay