Sunday, March 31, 2019

CLIMBING TOWARD A GREATER UNDERSTANDING

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

This is how the apostle Paul begins his letter to the church at Ephesus. The letter that the apostle wrote to the church is one of the best representations of the grace and the peace of God to be found anywhere. For any Christian who is going through turmoil in their lives, where they are not experiencing peace, the book of Ephesians can remind us what is truly important.

When everything in life is put into perspective and we see what is ultimately crucial, we also see that the truly essential issues can never be in question for the believer, because these are the very matters where we see most clearly the grace of God.

When we see his grace, we have peace. Alternatively, it is useless trying to know peace without knowing the grace of God, for true peace can only flow from his grace.
 


The Long Sentence

After acknowledging the grace and the peace of God, Paul then continues in his letter with what is one of the most beautiful sentences in the Bible. It is a long sentence. The sentence begins with verse three and continues until the end of verse fourteen. If Paul would have had an editor for his writings, he probably would have been asked to break this sentence up into several smaller ones. Indeed, that is what we are going to do in the following paragraphs. We do this not because I wish to act as an editor, but only because in the sentence, Paul talks about so many riches that are given to the Christian that we cannot take it all in with one breath of air.

In some ways, making our way through this sentence is like climbing a mountain. We know that it is on the summit of the mountain where we have the richest perspective of the countryside around us, but we do not have the stamina to make it up to the top of the mountain in one mad dash. The mountain climber must take it in stages.

The goal, of course, is to reach the summit, but the climber must also make smaller goals; he must occasionally sit down and take a rest. However, at each resting place and even though he has not yet reached the heights of the summit, the climber can enjoy a new vista. He can look out over the surrounding countryside and see the beauty that is around him.

So it will be for us as we climb our way through this long sentence. Before we reach the end, there are several beautiful things to see along the way. However, also like climbing a mountain, some of the stages are a little difficult. Sometimes we will even question if we can make it through to the next stage.

But we do. In order to reach the summit to gain a perspective of the grace and peace of God, we push ourselves to make it through some of the more difficult spots. 

So it is, with this little pep talk that we begin our way through this introductory sentence of Paul’s.
 

Spiritual Blessings in the Heavenly Places

Happily enough, our first steps are not difficult at all. Paul begins, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3 ESV).

This portion of the sentence is like the walk through the meadow at the foot of the mountain. As we stroll through the grasses and the flowers, we see the blessings of God. They are all around us. We see them in the material blessings that we have. They are in the food that we eat and the roof that is over our heads. We see them in friends and family. If we take the time to look, we see the blessings of God at every step.

It is true that many people do not see this. Many are in such a state of preoccupation in their lives that they miss seeing what is around them, just as a person can walk through a mountain meadow and not notice the many flowers blooming around him. Perhaps one of the reasons that these people do not notice the beauty around them is that they are so anxious to reach the top of the mountain, that they feel that they do not have time to enjoy the walk up to the base. 

Nevertheless, as important as these everyday blessings are, we should notice that Paul is not really talking about material blessings here. He is talking about “spiritual blessings in the heavenly places.”

What do these words mean? We know what material blessings are, because we can see them and touch them. Indeed, we do every day. But it is a little more difficult for us to understand what Paul means when he talks about spiritual blessings. I do not think that it should worry us that this is difficult for us to comprehend, and I will tell you why. 

Climbing Mountains

We have been using the analogy of climbing a mountain in order to gain a perspective from the height of its lofty peak. I do not want to give the impression that I am an experienced mountain climber of the world’s tallest mountains, but I have enjoyed hiking up many smaller peaks in some of the areas of the world where I have lived.

Many years ago, I lived for a couple of years in India, where I traveled with frequency to spend time in the Himalayan Mountains. Later, after I was married and had children, my family and I lived in the Andes Mountains of Venezuela, and much of my work was in the Andean countries along the west coast of South America. We also lived in Guatemala, where from the roof of our home, we could see the peaks of four volcanos, two dormant ones and two active ones.

One of the activities that I enjoyed while living and working in these places was hiking to the top of some of these mountain peaks. At times, the climb was strenuous. Often as I climbed, I wanted to give up. It seemed as if I had no more strength left in my legs. However, I knew that if I would give in to my desire to quit, I would always wonder what the view from the top would have been like.

It is true that I could have listened to someone’s description of what it was like on the summit. I could have asked a successful climber to describe the details of the view, and I could have even looked at his photographs.

However, nothing could have compared with what I saw when I myself reached the top of the mountain. Any description, any photograph, would have fallen far inferior to actually standing on the pinnacle and looking at the 360° panoramic view.

Besides this, there is more to the experience than what you can see with your eyes. It also includes breathing the thin, cold air and feeling the frigid breeze on your face; it is the feeling of accomplishment of having attained your goal; it is the final assurance that all of the effort was worth it.

As I said, oftentimes when I have climbed a mountain, in the exhaustion of the ascent, I did not want to continue. The muscles in my legs had reached their limit of endurance (or so I thought), and my body was sapped of energy. Reason told me that I could not continue.

Yet I did continue. I knew that if I would give up, I would probably regret it for the rest of my life. I would have to bear the disappointment of hearing the description of the summit by someone else who had not given up and who had reached the top. I knew that try as I might, I would not be able to understand all that he said. However detailed his description, it could never attain to what one actually sees when he is standing at the top. Besides this, as I have mentioned, there is also the very feeling that is involved with the experienced that simple words cannot describe. 

Spiritual Climbs

In some ways, it is the same when Paul talks about the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places. Paul was an experience climber of spiritual mountains, and when he tells us about what he has seen, it is sometimes difficult for us to understand.

But we should know that Paul speaks from experience when he talks about the view from some of the spiritual summits that he had climbed. In his letters, he is trying to explain to us some of the things that he has seen, but since we have not yet been there, it is difficult for us to understand his description.

But although Paul experienced views that we have not, he himself did not yet consider that he had reached the goal of his life with God.

In a letter to another church, this one in the city of Philippi, he said, “I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14 NAS).

Paul was still climbing. 

Preparation for the Climb

Actually, it might be helpful for us to look at this letter to the Philippians for just a moment, because it helps us in our analogy of climbing a mountain. Paul, in this letter, is talking about the discipline needed to continue in our walk with Christ. Remaining faithful in our walk with Christ is not something that comes naturally to us, and we often want to give up.

Many do. Many simply give up. But speaking of the discipline needed, Paul says this: 

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. 

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:7-12 ESV) 

You will notice that in setting out to discover spiritual blessings, similar to preparing to climb a literal mountain, one must make several sometimes difficult choices. First of all, the climber must go into training. We can well understand this in the physical challenge of climbing a mountain, but it is no less true in the spiritual. Indeed, there is sometimes a relationship between the two.

You will also notice that Paul speaks of giving up that which he had before gained—that for which he had previously strived and worked hard to achieve. In Paul’s case, I think that he was perhaps talking about a level of self-righteousness that he had achieved in believing that he could reach the spiritual summit purely by his own efforts through learning to live by the Law of Moses.

However, for you and me, that which we must give up for the sake of our training may just as well be something physical. Perhaps we have worked hard to gain wealth or property. Perhaps, up to this point, these goals of this world have been the focus of our lives.

Perhaps those things that are gains to us are the talents that we possess. We may have great athletic abilities or great musical abilities. Perhaps we have a great gift of speaking. These are things that, if we develop them enough, can give us great status in the world. The people of the world will praise us and put our faces on posters to hang on the wall. We can also use these talents to gain great riches.

But Paul is telling us that if we really wish to experience the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places, we must re-prioritize our lives. These things such as wealth or status or fame must become to us what they had become to Paul—rubbish.

That does not necessarily mean that we suddenly have to deny that these things (whatever they may be) are a part of our lives. However, it does mean that we must recognize that there is nothing in them that will help us achieve spiritual blessings.

Indeed, there is much in them that have the possibility of inhibiting us. These natural abilities and talents that we have are not ours because we are someone special. They are gifts from God. If we misuse them or use them with the wrong motivations, they indeed are rubbish. We may think great things of ourselves, but there is something greater still. That thing is the same thing for which Paul was striving: “The surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

It is not as if we must neglect these talents and these gifts, but we must remember that our true goal in life is as it was for Paul: “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

With every talent and gift that Paul had, he tried to use them to better attain this, his true goal. It is not that he did not use them, but he used them with the correct priorities.

Think of it in this way: If you buy a gift for your child that you think will make him very happy, and then only to see that he is misusing it and neglecting it, you become sorry that you even gave it to him in the first place. Perhaps he leaves it in the street and it is run over by a bus. Now it is ruined. It is rubbish. This once beautiful toy becomes nothing but something for the trash bin.

Or perhaps he acts arrogantly with other children because he has this special toy and they do not. He brags about it and uses it to make himself look superior over his friends.

No doubt you as a parent would be greatly saddened by this. It is the same with God. He has given each of us, his beloved children, beautiful gifts. If he sees that we cherish these gifts and are using them correctly, it gives him great joy, just as it would be for us as parents. But if we are misusing them or neglecting them, think of how God must feel. His heart is saddened. He will not be likely to give us further gifts.

That is why, in our quest for spiritual summits, we will never make it to the top if we burden ourselves with our backpacks full of worldly concerns. It takes hard choices as to what to take with us and what we must leave behind. 

A Spiritual Mountaintop Experience

In yet another letter that Paul wrote, this one to the church in Corinth, the apostle tells about a glimpse he had of spiritual blessings in the heavenly places. As a way of speaking modestly, he speaks in the third person, as if this were an experience of someone else. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that this was Paul’s own vision: 

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows – was caught up into Paradise, and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. (2 Corinthians 12:2-4 NAS) 

Whatever all was entailed in this experience, it was, for Paul, a glimpse of something other than this present physical life that we experience every day. It was something beyond this present existence.

Thus, when he wrote to the Ephesians about spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ, he was speaking from more than the theoretical. For Paul, it was also experiential. He himself confessed that he did not know how it all had happened, or even if it was in his physical body or not, but he had been transported to a spiritual summit and is telling us a little bit about how the view was from up there.

Another Christian, in a similar situation and given this experience and special revelation from God, might because of this vision claim that he possessed a privileged spiritual position greater than others. Indeed, Paul recognized that this was an experience that few men would have. It is not that he discounted the importance of this revelation, but one of the reasons that he spoke about this experience in the third person was so that he would not become proud because of it. 

A Wound from the Climb

In addition, God gave Paul a reminder that this vision was not something that he experienced because of any worthiness or special merit on the part of the apostle. This reminder was what Paul calls “a thorn in the flesh.”

We do not know what this thorn was, but it was perhaps some infirmity or some constant pain in his body. However, even though we do not know what this was, we do know its purpose. Paul himself confessed that it was given to him, “to keep me from exalting myself,” as he put it.

Paul says that he entreated the Lord three times to take this problem from him, but the answer that he received from God was this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

Thus, instead of boasting about some kind of spiritual superiority or privilege, Paul learned to say, “On behalf of such a man will I boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses…Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:5, 9 NAS).

What Paul learned from this whole experience was what he also wrote to the Ephesians in the opening words of his salutation: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Above everything else, it is the grace of God that is central and it is only the grace of God that will give us peace.

Thus it is, if we wish to learn something from the perspective that Paul gives us, then we must be prepared for some exhausting climbs. As we continue in the letter to the Ephesians, we find that we are about to begin one.
 
(Continued next time)

 

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