The Love of God in Ephesians
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The letter to the Ephesians describes the aggressive (agape) love of God and shows the manner in which we are to respond to that love. As described in the epistle, the love of God does not derive from anything in us but solely from Him and from His nature. We did nothing to earn the mercy and grace of our Lord. Rather, God, out of his great love, “even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ.” (Eph 2:5) As the apostle John wrote, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) The first three chapters of Ephesians describe the love which God hath shown us, a love made manifest fully in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and executor of the plan which God the Father designed before the “foundation of the world.” (Eph 1:4) Any love we have for God comes “because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) The final three chapters of Ephesians elaborate on the love God has displayed and teaches us how we ought to respond to that love. Paul exhorts us to “Be ye therefore followers of God” (Eph 5:1) and lays out instructions on how we are to carry out that commandment in our relationships with fellow believers, in the home, at work, and in our stance against the enemy. As the study guide explains, God gives us grace and we respond that grace with faith, a trust in God and His word that enables us to “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith (we) are called.” (Eph 4:1) God desires we respond to His love with faith and the final three chapters show us how to be faithful in light of the “great love wherewith he loved us.” (Eph 2:4)
Lest anyone believe that we earned the love of the Lord in any way, Ephesians emphasizes “he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world.” (Eph 1:4) God devised his plan of salvation before he created world or any of us, so that none of us can claim credit for what he has done in a positive sense. What is his plan of salvation? “In love, he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ.” (NIV, Eph 1:4-5) This adoption came not through legal proceedings, but through the very blood of his Son, Jesus Christ, “in whom we have redemption…the forgiveness of sins.” (Eph 1:7) The Father did not wait for us invite his Son to save us from our sins, but rather he demonstrates his love for us in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) As 1 John 4:10 says, God sent his Son “to be the propitiation for our sins”, so any credit we have for the Father’s plan of salvation lies in our sins, not our good works. Isaiah prophesied, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities,” (Isa 53:5) and, indeed, the Lord himself said “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) If Jesus came to save sinners, those who strayed from God or who never knew him or desired to know him in the first place, then by necessity he pursued us before we came to him. When one takes into consideration that this plan came into being before he laid the foundation of the world, then it is clear that God’s love came first.
Moreover, any love we manifest toward God must of necessity be a responsive love, a love that comes as a result of the “great love wherewith he loved us.” (Eph 2:5) The study guide defines the type of love we have toward God as phileo love, “a rapport love” (GBNT 501 Study Guide II, p. 19), one that responds in kind to a love shown. By contrast, God’s love is agape love, an “aggressive love” that is “always abounding, always producing” and never based on the receiver. (GBNT 501 Study Guide II, p.18) How do we know that God is the aggressor in this relationship, the one who is always pursuing us in love? The history of our salvation tells us so. When Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, they “hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God.” (Gen 3:8) It was God who called to them and sought them out when they desired not his presence. It was the Lord who called Abraham out of his country and bestowed on him all the abundant blessings of his promise despite Abraham’s shortcomings and disbelief. (Gen 16, 20) God appeared to Moses in a burning bush, not the other way around, and when Moses declined the Lord’s command to speak in his name, God found another way. (Ex 4:14-17) When the people of Israel rejected God as their ruler by requesting an earthly king (1 Sam 8:7) and the king the Lord appointed fulfilled all the curses he prophesied through Samuel, it was God who appointed David to the throne, a man after God’s own heart. After David failed in his calling, “the LORD sent Nathan unto David” (2 Sam 12:1) to bring him to repentance. Those who succeeded David in Israel likewise failed, yet God “sent his servants” (Mat 21:34) that they might receive the fruits of the harvest the Lord had prepared for them. Finally, he sent his Son, but they hated him more than the others and “caught him” and “slew him.” (Mat 21:36) Through that disobedience, that turn from God, “the stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner.” (Mat 21:42) As it is written in 1 Cor 1:18, “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness”, a love so magnificent as to seem foolish that the bringer of that love should die at the hands of the receiver in order to save the receiver from certain death. In this way, “God made foolish the wisdom of this world” (1 Cor 1:20) by turning our disobedience and sin into the very means by which he effects our salvation; by this he shows us his love.
How, though, did we who did not physically participate in the crucifixion of Christ contribute to God’s plan of salvation through our disobedience and sin? Indeed, how did we live in disobedience and sin prior to coming to know Christ as the risen Lord? Ephesians tells us “we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath.” (Eph 2:3) We were by nature the objects of God’s wrath due to our disobedience; we had given ourselves “over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.” (Eph 4:19) Though the unbeliever may look at his life and see such sinfulness, a glance at the works of the flesh listed by Paul in Galatians 4:19 with an open heart should convince us all that we have no natural inheritance in the kingdom of God.
It is clear that “we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another.” (Tit 3:3) Our sinful deeds came because we “walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.” (Eph 2:2) This verse shows us that the evil one holds sway over those who do not know Christ as Savior. Indeed, “the whole world is controlled by the evil one” (NIV, 1 John 5:19) and “the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not” (2 Cor 4:3-4) in an effort to keep the gospel of Christ from shining onto them. Though the sinner has his mind darkened by the devil, Romans 1:20 makes it clear that all men have a measure of light revealed to them such none have an excuse. Yet, God clearly did not leave us in our sins, but “wants all men to be saved” (2 Tim 2:4) and died as a “ransom for all” (2 Tim 2:6) to prove that point.
Christ Jesus gave himself as an offering for us that we might be reconciled to God. (Eph 2:16) In his flesh, he abolished the enmity both between God and man and Gentile and Jew. (Eph 2:15, Rom 5:10) By this, he did not desire a truce so much as unity. The Lord desires such intimacy with us that he “may dwell in (our) hearts by faith” (Eph 3:17) and such closeness between Jews and Gentiles that the two may become one new man. (Eph 2:15) God desires intimacy with us and between fellow believers similar to that between husband and wife, that “they shall be one flesh.” (Gen 2:24) He gave himself as a peace offering, but seeks more than co-existence; he desires unity through intimacy (John 17:21) that we “might be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19).
Then, “rooted and grounded” (Eph 3:17) in the love that “passeth knowledge” (Eph 3:19), we can respond effectively to God’s love. In what manner does he wish us to respond? Ephesians answers that question by exhorting us to be “therefore followers of God, as dear children.” (Eph 5:1) Christ Jesus himself told us as much, saying, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.” (John 14:23) Thus we are told the nature of the love response that God desires from us. To follow God and to love him means to obey his commands in faith. In that way, we shall “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith (we) are called.” (Eph 4:1) Not that we can earn God’s love through our obedience, but we are to respond to God’s love by trusting him enough to do as he says. As dear children, we are to obey our Father, as God has commanded children to obey their earthly parents. (Eph 6:1) We are to obey him because he is our Father and because he is always right. (GBNT 501, p. 19) Though Jesus is our elder brother, we are to obey him as we would the Father because “the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me” (John 14:10) and “all power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” (Mat 28:18) The one who has seen Jesus has seen the Father (John 14:9), for he is “the image of the invisible God.” (Col 1:15) Obedience to Jesus is obedience to the Father and disobedience is the same. Whoever loves God will obey the commands of our Lord Jesus Christ, and he who does not love the God will not. (John 15:23, John 14:24) That is what it means to follow God and that is how we are to respond to his love.
After telling us to follow God, Ephesians gives us the nature and essence of our obedience. It exhorts us to “walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us.” (Eph 5:2) We follow God by walking in love. The instructions given in the latter half of Ephesians are based on love, the same love that Jesus commanded of us on the night of his arrest when he said, “love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) We are to forebear one another in love (Eph 4:2), speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), and grow together into the body of Christ together in love. (Eph 4:18) Likewise, we should speak truth to every man because we are members of one another (Eph 4:25), work so that we may have “to give to him that needeth” (Eph 4:28), love our wives as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25), and forgive one another even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you. (Eph 4:32)
The preceding verses give evidence of the purpose of our obedience as well as it essence. If the essence of following God is to walk in love, then the purpose of that love is the fulfillment of the command to “love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Mk 12:31) We evince our love to God through our obedience, as well as through “speaking…singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph 5:19) and we display our love for one another through obedience to the instructions given in the latter half of Ephesians (and elsewhere). In that way, we love both God and our fellow man.
In light of the repeated admonition that we are “members one of another” (Eph 4:25), it can be assumed that the fellow man in Ephesians refers mostly to Christians, yet clearly our love is to extend to those outside the body of Christ. As Jesus said, “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Mt 5:34) God has exhorted his people from the beginning to be kind to those in our midst who are not his followers, as in Exodus 22:21: “thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the same way, we “were once darkness” (NIV, Eph 5:8) who “walked according to the course of this world” yet God is “kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.” (Luke 6:35) Therefore, we are to be merciful, as God is merciful. (Luke 6:36)
If, though, we are to love our enemies and show them mercy, then how much more are we to love those who are also in Christ. Paul’s repeated emphasis that we are “one body” (Eph 4:4) suggests a special relationship between fellow believers, not the strife and discord that often accompanies our relationships. Indeed, the world shall know us as Christ’s disciples by our love for one another. (John 13:35) Jesus prayed that we would be one that the world may believe that the Father has sent Him (John 17:21), so is it any wonder that the world does not believe given the lack of unity and love among believers? In particular, the marriage relationship for believers is compared to the relationship of Christ to the church. Husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it. (Eph 5:25) Given the high rate of divorce among Christians, is it any wonder that the world does not accept us as Christ’s ambassadors? (2 Cor 5:20) Even as fellow believers we are called to love each other the same way (John 13:34), for like in the marriage relationship, “we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.” (Eph 5:30) Clearly, we will wrong one another, whether intentionally or unintentionally, but we are to forgive one another as God forgave us in Christ Jesus. (Eph 4:32) If the world does not see this love acting in us and among us in our relationships with each other, from our spouse, to our children, to our coworkers, and our fellow man, how will it believe us when we speak of the love of God?
Yet, our motivation for this love comes not from striving to be a good witness, but simply from the love that God in Christ has shown us. (Eph 5:2). The word “therefore” in verse 4:1 shows the cause and effect between God’s love for us and our spiritual walk as followers of God. The abundant blessings of God should determine our behavior (GBNT Study Guide I, p. 3), so that instruction on the love of God and his plan of salvation precedes the teaching on our conduct as believers. Indeed, the two major prayers of the epistle ask God to give the readers insight into “what is, in fact, true” (GBNT Study Guide I, p. 3), so that they might “fully apprehend the love of Christ.” Thus, in light of the love which “passeth knowledge” (Eph 3:19), we are enabled, through the Spirit’s strengthening (Eph 3:16), to walk worthy of the vocation to which we are called. (Eph 4:1). Thus, God’s love for us in Jesus Christ gives us both the strength and the motivation to live the life of love to which he has called us.
As if aware that the believers might faint at the instructions given in the latter half of the epistle, Paul reminds us the extent of God’s love throughout the final three chapters. He recalls to us God’s forgiveness (Eph 4:32), the sacrificial love of Christ (Eph 5:2), and the intimacy we now share with the Lord (Eph 5:30). It seems likely that Paul did not remind the church of these things to shame them, but to encourage and strengthen them in the struggle they face (Eph 6:10-20). When Paul tells his readers that we are “members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (Eph 5:30), he desires that the church “be strong in the Lord (Eph 6:10) through the knowledge of God’s love for them and his desire to be wed to them. Such words are not meant to condemn the believer for his failures to live up to the high standards God has set, but to remind them of “the great love wherewith he loved us.” (Eph 2:5) After all, it is God who justifies, so who is it that condemns? (Rom 8:34) Likewise, when we realize our failures to live up to the life of love to which God has called us, the words contained in this epistle should not condemn us but encourage us, for the Lord is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.” (Ex 34:6) If we have sinned “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9) and lives to make intercession for us. (Rom 8:34) In that way, we should not be condemned for our failures, even by ourselves, for in Christ Jesus God has forgiven us. Indeed, God can turn failures into good by which he saves many people (Gen 50:20), so that our failures themselves might be transformed for His glory.
Through the epistle to the Ephesians, God describes his love for us and the power he has made available to us to follow him. The strengthening our inner man has as its purpose knowing the love of Christ and rooting and grounding us in that love. Christ shall then dwell in our hearts by faith and we shall be part of his body, his flesh, and his bones, thereby enabling us to live a life worthy of our calling to walk in love. God loves us with an aggressive (agape) love that quickened us when were dead in our sins and earnestly seeks to forgive us when we sin. Our Lord has pursued us with an abounding love and we are to respond to him in faith, “doing the will of God from the heart.” (Eph 6:6) In light of the great love wherewith he loved us, would we want to do any less?
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