This morning we are going to begin a brand new study. I’ve been reading Ephesians for the past several weeks and each time I read Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus I come away lifted, encouraged, and reminded of the most foundational truths for the followers of Jesus.

Ephesians is a tool in the hand of God to reorient us. I believe with all of my heart that we struggle with trying to find meaning and purpose in life and we suffer without strength because of two ailments that plague us—we have made ourselves the center of existence and we are too earthly minded. I want to talk more about this a little later, but for now, let me illustrate the opposite mindset of these mental and spiritual ailments by laying the foundation for our study of Ephesians.

Ephesians is part of a section of God’s Word called, the “Prison Epistles.” Paul first visited Ephesus on his second missionary journey. We can read about Paul’s arrival in Ephesus with his ministry friends, Priscilla and Aquila, in Acts 18:19-21. Read it with me.

19 They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. 21 But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Then he set sail from Ephesus. (Acts 18:19-21 NIV)

The folks in Ephesus wanted Paul to stay, but he told them, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Paul didn’t stay long, but the church was encouraged and the husband and wife team of Priscilla and Aquila stayed to minister to the people as Paul traveled on.

Paul left Ephesus and traveled to Caesarea, then to Antioch before he visited the followers of Jesus in Phrygia and Galatia, which is modern-day Turkey. By the time we get to Acts 19 we find Paul heading back to Ephesus. This time he stayed there for close to three years proclaiming the Gospel and teaching the followers of Jesus. I don’t want you to think that Paul’s time in Ephesus was all “cheers and hallelujahs” with the people hoisting him on their shoulders at the end of each day after he finished teaching and preaching. There were incredible times when Paul saw the hand of God at work as many miracles were witnessed, people turned from practicing sorcery and burned their magic books, and folks repented of their sins and became followers of Jesus.

There were other times that were challenging for Paul. When he first arrived in Ephesus he spent the first three months of his time speaking at the synagogue. Some Jews got upset with him. We read in Acts 19:9, 9 But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. (Acts 19:9 NIV) Paul left the synagogue and went to the lecture hall of a man named Tyrannus where he taught for the next two years.

In Acts 19:24-41, we can read about a silversmith named Demetrius who made silver shrines of the god Artemis, or Diana, to sell to the people of Ephesus. The conversion of many of the folks of Ephesus had cut into the income of folks like Demetrius because the sales of the trinkets and shrines in honor of Artemis had slowed tremendously. Demetrius stirred up the citizens of Ephesus and we read in Acts 19:29, 29 Soon the whole city was in an uproar. (Acts 19:29 NIV)

In the opening verse of Acts 20, we find Paul saying, “Good bye” to the folks of Ephesus as he headed to Jerusalem, visiting the followers of Jesus along the way. Before he ever made it to Jerusalem, Paul had one more encounter with the leaders of the church in Ephesus. He was in Miletus, about 30 miles south of Ephesus, and he waited there as he sent for the elders of the church in Ephesus to meet with him. When the leaders of the church in Ephesus arrived, Paul spoke with them. Turn to Acts 20:17 with me and let’s see what Paul had to say.

17 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18 When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19 I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. 22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. 25 “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. 26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. 32 “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” 36 When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship. (Acts 20:17-38 NIV)

As you can see, Paul’s stay in Ephesus was anything but easy, but he was faithful. Paul finally arrived in Jerusalem, after leaving the leaders in the church of Ephesus, only to be arrested because the whole city was in an uproar. Are you recognizing any themes surrounding Paul’s work? There are no “health, wealth, and prosperity Gospel” themes found in what we’ve covered are there? There’s very little smooth sailing on the waters of Paul’s life. It’s tough walking in obedience to the Lord. Serving the Lord means that you are going to encounter trying times at times…oftentimes. Yet, Paul is fully alive. He is fully experiencing the glory of God.

After Paul was arrested he was transferred to Caesarea in the early summer of 58 A.D. Then, two years later, he was transferred to Rome where he remained under house arrest until the Spring of 62 A.D. It was during this time that Paul wrote what we know as the “Prison Epistles.” The books included in the “Prison Epistles” are Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.

As you read the “Prison Epistles” you will never read, “Pray for God to get me out of here.” As a matter of fact, if you read these letters written from prison, you will find that Paul sees his confinement in prison as part of God’s plan for his life. Because of Paul’s confinement he was being given an opportunity to share the Gospel with some folks that he would otherwise have never encountered. Look at Ephesians 6:19-20 with me see if you can identify what Paul is asking others to pray for him.

19 Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Ephesians 6:19-20 NIV)

Paul is asking other believers to pray for him isn’t he? What he is asking them to pray about is far different from what we might ask others to pray about if we were in the same situation. Paul is asking for greater boldness in declaring the Good News to everyone within the sound of his voice.

In another of the letters that Paul wrote from prison, Philippians, he makes it known to his readers that they shouldn’t feel sorry for him or worry about him. What has happened to him in being incarcerated has served to advance the Gospel and energize those around him who are followers of Jesus. Turn with me to Philippians 1:12-14 and let’s read together.

12 Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. (Philippians 1:12-14 NIV)

In the four letters that Paul wrote from prison he mentions ten times that he is “in chains” or a “prisoner,” but never once does he bemoan the fact of his imprisonment. He is doing God’s will, he is making Jesus known, and he is seeing the hand of God at work because of his confinement.

This past week I read, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” by Martin Luther King Jr. and I read some excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, “Letters and Papers from Prison.” Both of them are powerful reads. Dr. King wrote, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” on April 16, 1963 while he was confined in the city jail at Birmingham, Alabama for protesting the segregation practices of the leaders of the city of Birmingham. The letter from Dr. King was sparked by another letter that was run in a local newspaper by a group of eight white local pastors who said that the protests were “unwise and untimely.” Dr. King’s letter was smuggled out of the jail in a tube of toothpaste and it describes why Dr. King and others staged their protest. The letter is powerful and should be read by everyone.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, “Letters and Papers from Prison,” was written after Bonhoeffer was arrested for plotting the assassination of Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was in his late thirties when he was arrested and the letters were written between 1943-1945. His letters describe the routines of prison life, the thoughts of a man whose faith was tried in the crucible of hardships, as well as letters to his fiancé, Maria von Wedemeyer, and friends. Dr. King and Pastor Bonhoeffer wrote from inside a prison cell and their thoughts are powerful, but they are quite different than the words written by the Apostle Paul.

As Paul opens his letter to the brothers and sisters in Ephesus, his pen erupts with praise of the glory of God. If there is one overarching theme of the letter to the church in Ephesus it would have to be the glory of God. Paul is not focused on himself. He is not curled up in bed mired in his circumstances. He is focused on the glory and purpose of God. It’s interesting to me, that in Paul’s last meeting with the elders of Ephesus he told them,

22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20:22-24 NIV)

Paul says, “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me…” You see, there is a huge difference between living from the perspective Paul shares with us in Acts 20:24 and living from the perspective that most of us live from each day. This takes me back to the beginning of our study this morning and the statement I made about the two ailments that are plaguing us as followers of Jesus today. Let me refresh your memory. I said, “I believe with all of my heart that we struggle with trying to find meaning and purpose in life and we suffer without strength because of two ailments that plague us—we have made ourselves the center of existence and we are too earthly minded.” These are mindsets; they are not the reality that God wants us to experience. When we make ourselves the center of existence then we become our own ultimate truth. What we say is reality. What we feel is accurate. What we want is our highest aim. This mindset will get us nowhere. It will lead us into eventual despair because, if you have not figured it out already, you and I are often wrong and when we get what we want it never delivers what we thought it would deliver.

The second ailment that I mentioned, “we are too earthly minded,” is equally destructive. Our minds are consumed with life in the here and now. When was the last time you stopped and thought about God? I mean you put the paper down, you turned off the noise of music and television, and you fixed your mind on God’s rich mercy, His sweet forgiveness, or His absolute Sovereignty over all things? Paul wrote another letter while he was in prison, the letter to the Colossians, and in that letter he urged them.

1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossian 3:1-3 NIV)

To “set” our minds, as Paul says, is simply to think about, to meditate upon the things above, the things of God. I will promise you that if you will begin to do this on a regular basis it will change you. Paul urged the people in Philippi, another letter written from prison, to do the same thing. Read along with me from Philippians 4:8.

8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. (Philippians 4:8 NIV)

What can you think about that is more true, more noble, more right, more pure, more lovely, more admirable or excellent or praiseworthy than God? Set your minds on God in His holiness, His grace, His love, and watch it change your present reality, regardless of how bleak that reality may appear to you. Does it really work? Well, I’ll give you an example from Paul’s life. You know where Paul was when he wrote the letter to the folks in Ephesus. He was in prison. Yet, listen to the opening of his letter. Read along with me from Ephesians 1:1-14.

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will– 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment–to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. 11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession–to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:1-14 NIV)

What is Paul thinking about while he is in prison? Himself? His needs? His wants? His perspective on being incarcerated? Not all! He is thinking about God—who He is, what He has done, and what He is doing. It is this topic that should flood our minds. It is this topic that should serve as the lens for everything we encounter in life.

Paul identified himself as an “apostle of Christ Jesus,” but this wasn’t Paul’s choice, it was God’s will. Paul says that he is “in Christ” and yet this too was God’s work. Paul was chosen, predestined, and adopted by God through Jesus Christ. Paul was seeking to live a holy life, a set-apart life, a life of obedience to God. Yet, this effort was being made by Paul because he had been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus. Do you see how Paul traced everything about his life back to God?

For far too many of us, we are the beginning and the end of everything that pertains to our lives. We experience it and then we interpret it based upon how we think about it. So, naturally, if we experience pain or suffering or challenges that we think are beyond us, we conclude that they are bad, and then we focus our energy on trying to figure a way out as fast as possible. If we experience something that is pleasurable or enjoyable then we conclude that it must be good and we want more of it. Truth is, those things that are most challenging, or most painful, could be the greatest gifts God has given us and those things that we feel are most enjoyable or pleasurable could be the most destructive things in our lives.

If God is seen by you and me as the Sovereign King that He is then we know that there is nothing that comes into our lives that has not first been “Ok’d” by Him. Our response is not to interpret the experience, but to trust Him, to see His hand at work. We need to stop our mad dash to try and find meaning and purpose in the things and experiences of life and find our meaning and purpose in Him. Let me close by telling you a story.

There was an old miner who had spent all of his life searching for silver in the mountains of the Old West. He had become so obsessed with his search that his wife and children had left him. When he died, the handful of people who came to bury him found that he had left them a note with instructions to bury him under his cabin. As his friends started to carry out his wishes, they began to dig under the old man’s cabin. As soon as they started digging they turned over gray material that was mixed in with the dirt. As it turned out, it was the rim of a huge vein of silver. The miner had been a millionaire all his life, but he had never known about his wealth because he was looking elsewhere. What he was seeking above all else was right under his nose, but he missed it. He never took advantage of what he had!

If you are a follower of Jesus then you have untold wealth in your possession whether you know it or not. Remember what Paul said? He said that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Jesus! Yet, I’m afraid that for many of us, we are like the old miner. We are neglecting the blessings God has already made available to us because we are looking in all the wrong places for what we think will make us happy and whole. We are not the first followers of Jesus to do this.

There has probably never been a church that was as blessed as the church in Ephesus. There was constant ministry taking place there. Priscilla and Aquila ministered there. Paul spent three years teaching and preaching there. Timothy was sent there to minister after Paul got out of prison in Rome. Yet, thirty years after Paul wrote the letter to the church in Ephesus another letter was sent to the people of Ephesus. This letter was from Jesus. Turn with me to Revelation 2:1-5 and let’s read together.

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (Revelation 2:1-5 NIV)

This letter holds some of the saddest words in Scripture—“You have forsaken your first love. Remember the heights from which you have fallen!” I don’t want that to be God’s description of me. I want His love to burn bright in my life. I want to see His hand at work at every turn. I want to live so that others see Him as they watch and listen to me. I want to live knowing that my life is worth nothing, but His glory is worth everything. Is that your desire? It all begins by surrendering our lives to Jesus—by making Him Lord of our every thought and action. Won’t you do that right now?

Mike Hays
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
September 11, 2011

Ephesians: A Letter from Prison for the Glory of God
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