Esther's Feast: A Study of the Book of Esther
Return to Contents | Return to Introduction
Blessed in Christ
Glimpses of Christ's glory attend everyday life.
On Sunday, May 1, 1558, in Geneva, John Calvin began
a sermon series on the Letter to the Ephesians. Preaching verse-by-verse
through the letter, he concluded the series the following March
with the forty-eighth sermon. These were difficult preaching
days for Calvin. He was severely asthmatic. Often his speech
was slowed by a gasping need to breathe. Moreover, in the summer
of the Ephesians series, Calvin burst a blood vessel while preaching.
Regardless of physical strains, Calvin's conviction to preach
through Ephesians held firm. He hoped these sermons would inspire
a desire for the gospel of reconciliation so appealing that his
people would give themselves wholly to it.1
Calvin's hope continues in this much briefer study of Ephesians.
Studying Ephesians is like a covered-dish dinner in a small country
congregation: the table is spread with the faithful's favorites,
a few "new creations," and plenty of sweets. Likewise,
the verses for this lesson abound with doctrines, prayers, hymns,
and sighs too deep for words. Each offering is wrapped "in
Christ" and each is a blessing that transforms. As this
lesson concludes we are blessed by a taste of the goodness yet
Stranger Guide: God as Stranger
Mighty, swirling mystery: Creator God.
Flesh and bone, yet divine: Redeemer Christ.
Soul close, dynamic: Sustainer Spirit.
No matter how many words and images
we pile up,
our most familiar
Whether simple or ornate, mysterious or comforting, the many
artistic renderings of holy figures cannot capture their full
essence. While stories and depictions of biblical happenings
abound, God's boundless love and mercy can only be experienced
What language shall I borrow?
Whenever the New Testament is opened to the epistles, the
reader is invited to enter a strange, new world: the world of
first-century Christianity. It is a world of borrowed forms and
fresh beliefs. Every idea previously known and every truth previously
affirmed is stretched to hold the new content of faith: Jesus
Christ. Even in something as simple as a communication between
a pastor and a congregation, the challenge presents itself. The
opening words of Ephesians use a fresh, and uniquely Christian,
approach to the task of communicating faith in the first century:
the language of worship. At times this language is grand and
soaring. Profound phrases carry grand beliefs: "blessed
be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," "adopted
as his children," "redemption through his blood."
Poetic phrases reach, touch, and please the soul: the riches
of grace, a plan for the fullness of time, live for the praise
of his glory. These are worship words; they are profound and
beautiful . . . and uniquely suited to Christian letter writing.2
Beneath these worshipful words, a melody rings. Although contemporary
Christians will never know these first-century melodies, we understand
the experience of a melody playing beneath familiar words. Try
saying the words, "Jesus loves me, this I know . . ."
without hearing the melody just beneath the words! Such a union
of words and music is present in the opening verses of Ephesians.3
Perhaps some members of the congregations hummed along as the
letter was read. The words and melodies of the opening fourteen
verses are intentionally arranged to bear the imprint of early
Christian worship. The verses move from the grand praise of God
to personal gratitude for God's saving grace. Worship, the most
common, holy, and intimate of congregational activities, is the
language of this letter's salutation.
1. In the preface to A Singing Faith,
Jane Parker Huber writes, "Faith is meant to be sung, and
hymns are for the singing of it."4 What hymns sing your
Grace to you and peace,
"This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and
be glad in it." Many services of worship open with words
such as these. Whether in traditional or contemporary language,
a call to worship has a simple purpose. It designates worship
as an occasion to rejoice and be glad in the Lord. As a community
of faith, we recognize the liturgical direction of worship. The
first words of worship call us into God's presence; they signal
holy time. As the words ring out, we respond with a shift in
attention and thought. We cease being attendees at a random gathering;
suddenly we are addressed as those who know God and who are glad
to be in God's presence. That's the invitation of the second
verse, "Grace to you and peace . . . ." These words
have the power and purpose of a call to worship. In fact, every
early Christian community from Rome to Jerusalem and from Alexandria
to Ephesus recognized and responded to this as a liturgical greeting.
"Grace to you and peace . . ." also affirms beloved
facts of faith for the early Christian communities. First, grace
indicates God's saving love of humanity. By grace, God greets
humans, enters into a covenantal relationship with Israel, opens
the covenant to Gentiles, and in Jesus Christ creates a new and
secure future. The account of God's salvation, hidden in the
single word "grace," invites Christian congregations
to revere God by remembering all God's gracious deeds.
Barbara Jolola, a Nigerian Christian, holds a one-woman
worship service in front of Gulf of Guinea. Despite the many
churches, homes, and lives that have been destroyed by Nigerian
police, she returns to Bar Beach with her ceremonial candles
to celebrate God's creation and to thank God, the most familiar
stranger, for being with her daily.
2. We use the word "grace"
infrequently in everyday speech. What other words might you use
to communicate to someone the saving deeds of God today?
Grace: God's saving action to
redeem and restore all creation, including human relationships,
gone awry from God's purpose
harmony and wholeness that flows from God's grace; the outcome
of redemption, restoration, and reconciliation in relationships,
community, and creation5
Second, joined to grace is peace. Although a personal, inner
peace has importance for each Christian, the peace announced
at the opening of first-century worship is, emphatically, a social
concept.6 This is the peace of the gospel that turns the world
upside down. Hostilities end. Enmities vanish. Strangers become
friends. What could not be imagined-humanity controlled by love
rather than fear-is present! The peace that flows from grace
is more than a spiritual condition of serenity; this peace is
a living reality. Again, this is God's doing and the small Christian
congregations are amazed and connected by the greeting. "Grace
to you and peace . . ." announces God's deeds, offers God's
presence, and presents a sweet taste of God's transforming love
to all creation. By these words, the community is called to remember
To make its reading easier, scholars have provided punctuation
marks in our Bibles. We should be exceedingly grateful for their
handiwork. In the Greek, many lines (sometimes pages!) read as
one long, run-on sentence. Infrequently, there is a pause signaling
the end of one idea and the beginning of another. However, most
of scripture marches steadily forward. Verses 3 through 10 of
Ephesians move with such determination. This section is a barrage
of dangling dependent clauses. Phrases tumble over one another
as a clumsy sentence grows too long. Thoughtful punctuation sharpens
the meaning. Here, by the insertion of commas and periods, one
idea emerges: we are blessed in Christ!
3. Uniquely Christian blessings come
wrapped "in Christ" and draw believers close to Christ.
How do you experience Christ's blessing in your everyday life?
In these eight verses, all God's blessings are wrapped "in
Christ." Pause to read these verses now. Notice, the pronoun
is "we," establishing community; the verbs are past
tense and passive, affirming the accomplishment of God's mighty
deeds; the repetition of the phrase "in Christ," focuses
attention on Christ. We are related to God through Jesus Christ.
We have not inherited this relationship nor is it ours through
personal achievement. We belong to God because "in Christ"
God established this relationship. These "wrapped in Christ"
verses are concept-rich! Trying to understand every phrase makes
minds whirl and spirits sigh. It is almost too much. This is
the letter's intention. Borrowing from the language of hymns
and prayers, these verses build up a blessing so full that the
rational mind begs for a pause for reflection. No pause, however,
is offered. The blessings pour on and on.
The impact of overly full verses is similar to the first few
moments of most services of worship. Think of the opening to
the services you attend. There may be one or all of these elements
--a call to worship containing allusions to scripture or drawing
attention to the holy work about to begin
--hymns or choruses of praise declaring God's providence, creativity,
steadfastness, and holiness
--a prayer of confession touching our conscience and plumbing
--a declaration of God's forgiveness drawing us into scripture
or announcing ancient truths of the church
Contemporary services begin with rich expressions of faith.
Often, there is more in the first ten minutes of worship than
most minds can comprehend. Yet, this is our ordinary way to gather
for worship; we do not find it confusing. Indeed, we understand
and recognize the direction immediately. We enter into worship
with lavish praising, exhorting, declaring, confessing, marveling,
and proclaiming. In the Letter to the Ephesians, ancient Christians
are also called to attention by a litany of the rich blessings
of God's deeds of salvation and the fullness of blessings in
Christ. Then comes a glimpse of glory.
Text in Context: First-Century
Correspondence or a Church Epistle?
The cultural environment of the
Letter to the Ephesians was maintained by three sets of social
relationships: business relationships of client-patron, relationships
of friends, and, of course, family relationships. Communication
flowed according to conventions appropriate to each set of relationships.
Business letters were formal and direct-at times full of advice
directed to a larger audience. Letters exchanged between friends
were intimate and self-revelatory. The communication among separated
family members was chatty and full of the details of everyday
The letters included in the New Testament are a mixed type including
content that is instructional, self-revelatory, and familial.
However, the family ethos predominates; the church is often described
as a household and the author speaks as head of the family. As
the earliest documents of faith, these letters bind believers
together by the presentation of clear guidelines for community
life, by the author's personal affirmations of faith, and through
living lessons in faithfulness offered as family guidance. The
novel approach contained in these epistles reflects the shifting
social relationships of the early Christian community.
Within decades, new forms of literature emerged: gospel accounts
of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as collections
of doctrines to guide faith's development. Understandably, early
Christian communities eagerly received and treasured letters,
especially those that carried the name of a trusted pastor and
Epistles: letters (from the Greek word epsitole)
Mosaic portrait of Saint Paul, detail
of the vault mosaics. Museo Arcivescovile, Ravenna, Italy.
4. Who taught you the meaning of
a call to worship? Are you teaching someone to worship? Could
a stranger learn to draw near to God by sitting next to you in
A glimpse of glory, vs.
Glory appears at the end of this litany in praise of God's
blessings in Christ. To contemporary readers, "glory"
may be a surprising choice for a last word. In our imaginations,
glory shines as a sunrise, a satisfying day, an intimate moment,
or an unexpected insight. However,
in the vocabulary of the early Christian communities, the word
"glory" traced a direct path to Jesus. For first-century
Christians, glory belonged preeminently to God. Glory signaled
mystery and majesty; glory was not a human concept, it was uniquely
otherworldly.7 Therefore, early Christians used "glory"
to explain and to demonstrate Jesus's unique relationship with
God. Glory signifies God and God's glory is exquisitely shown
in Jesus. "And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son,
full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). This is a fundamental
early church truth: Jesus bore the glory of God into the everyday
world. However, the glory of Jesus implies more than simply his
identity with God.
Jesus's glory is also the hope of Christian community. The letter
states, "In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance
. . . so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ,
might live for the praise of his glory" (Eph. 1:11a, 12).
The blessings of God in Christ have a purpose and an outcome.
They create a particular type of life, a life in which all things
in heaven and on earth are gathered in a glorious chorus of praise.
This Christ-blessed life is the content of the remainder of the
Letter to the Ephesians. The glory of Christ is the hope of every
Christian. The message meets everyday experience.
5. "For it is the God who said,
'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts
to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the
face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). How do you understand
the glory of God in Jesus?
God's own people, vs. 13--14
Finally, comes the pause! Finally, the letter reads like a
letter. Finally, you are addressed.
You bear the mark of the Spirit.
You belong to God.
You are the chorus of praise that displays God's glory to creation.
Whereas verses 3 through 12 pack words like "adoption"
and "redemption" with powerful theological concepts
woven together by a grand rhythm of worship, verses 13 and 14
simply address a congregation gathered for worship. It is as
if theology, liturgy, doctrine, and belief find chairs in the
house church circle and sit down with Christian friends to pray,
study, commune, and be changed by God. As I think about the original
audience listening to this letter, I can almost hear the gasp
of surprise at the phrase, "In him you also . . . ."
I see one of the faithful turning to a neighbor with a whispered,
"Hey, this is about us!" Finally, the letter reaches
its audience: the audience is you.
6. Ponder the phrase "God's
own people." What images come to mind? How is that phrase
alive in your faith community and in the church worldwide? Does
it draw outsiders in or keep them out?
Using language drawn from worship, Ephesians offers an invitation
to see the world in a new and glorious way: blessed in Christ.
As Christ's blessings are expressed, the rich language of worship
becomes the intimate language of God's own people. Then, the
sweet spiritual nourishment of Ephesians begins to satisfy. Finally,
the stranger who is writing feels as familiar as the one sitting
by your side. The first barrier broken in Ephesians is the barrier
between author and audience. That barrier falls as the worshipful
language creates community.
7. Do you have a collection of precious
letters? What makes them special?
O God, we see you in many ways:
in creation's beauty and terror,
in law's command and conscience,
in love's strength and tenderness,
but most clearly
we see you in
Keep us gazing on him.
Bless us in Christ,
for we long to be
your own people.
Suggestions for Leaders
In worship-filled words, the writer of Ephesians calls members
of the church to be united in the knowledge that from the beginning
of time, God had a plan of salvation that now has been revealed
in Jesus Christ. God offers special blessings of grace and peace
to those who accept Jesus as their Savior. God's redeemed people,
including those in the church at Ephesus, are called by the Holy
Spirit to praise God in this world and in the world to come.
· Pray for your own understanding of the scripture
passage, and for the women who come to the Bible study. Pray
that God may speak to each one through your choice of words.
· Carefully read the scripture passage and
try to say in your own words what Paul is saying. Study the literary
skill of the writer of the letter. Imagine yourself as a first-century
hearer of these words.
· Underline the lesson's main points.
· Read any commentaries or additional views
on the passage.
· Collect as many bulletins from your church's
worship service as there are women in your circle or study group.
· Sing the first two verses of "Come Sing,
O Church, in Joy!" (PH # 430).
· Prayer: God of beginnings, be near to us
as we study your word. Inspire us with your Holy Spirit, as we
set aside this time. Thank you for all the blessings you have
brought to our lives. Grant us thoughts and understanding that
will help as we seek to do your will in our lives. Each of us
needs you. Help us in our weaknesses. In your name, Amen.
· Discuss why it would be difficult to start
a new church for people who had never had a church experience
before. What would be some concerns for such people?
Listening to Scripture
· Read aloud, or have a member read the scripture
passage. Ask your group to imagine how a church full of strangers
to the Christian faith might talk about what is said in this
Exploring the Lesson
· Notice the pronouns: "we" in verse 12,
"you" in verse 13, and "our" in verse 14.
To whom do each of these refer, and how do they develop Paul's
· Give each group member a short length of
ribbon or yarn. Ask members what they could do with it. Accept
their suggestions and then point out that if all the small pieces
were joined together to make a longer rope many more uses could
be found. This is an analogy of the difference between individuality
and unity in a church.
· The author of this Bible study suggests that
the words of Ephesians 1:3--12 may have been related to hymns
sung by the congregation at Ephesus. If you were asked to choose
a hymn today to be played as a background for these words, which
of the following from The Presbyterian Hymnal would you choose?
Or would you prefer one not listed here?
"My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less" (PH # 380)
"Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine" (PH # 341)
"The Church's One Foundation" (PH # 442)
"How Firm a Foundation" (PH # 361)
"Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love" (PH # 367)
Sing softly together one or more of these hymns as far as you
can from memory or use hymnbooks.
Applying the Lesson
· By the use of the prayer in Ephesians
1:3--14, Paul reminds
the people that although they
may not know each other, they are bound together in unity by
faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Hand out copies of your church
bulletin. Ask members to find where in
your church's worship service are words that call people to unity
in Jesus Christ.
· Do you know people who "live
for the praise of his glory" (v. 12)? Mention ways that
you have seen Christians live in such a way. How can such a life
end the divisions that sometimes exist between people in a congregation?
· Sing together the last two verses
of "Come Sing, O Church, in Joy!"
(PH # 430).
· Close with your own prayer, then ask members
to join you in reading together the closing prayer at the end
of the lesson.
To order this Bible study call 800-524-2612
Past and Future
Bible studies are listed on other pages on our Web Site.
Return to Contents | Return to Introduction
To order this Bible study call 800/524-2612
Past and Future
Bible studies are listed on other pages on our Web Site.
Back to top