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Fall Quarter: God’s Exceptional Choice
Unit 3: We are God’s Artwork
Sunday School Lesson for the week of November 20, 2022
By Craig Rikard
Acts 19; Ephesians 2; Revelation 2:1-7
Key Text: We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10
- To understand what Paul means when he states we were “spiritually dead.”
- To better understand the reality we could not and cannot save ourselves from.
- To appreciate the motivation of God in saving us through Christ: love and grace.
- To contemplate what it means to be God’s “poetry” (artwork).
In chapter two Paul moves from his joyful salutation into the major message he seeks to impart. However, the joy and gratitude that opened the letter to the Ephesians are ever-present. For background information on the church at Ephesus, please consult the former two lessons and the teacher’s manual. Still, it is important to repeat that Paul is writing from prison. He is nearing the latter part of his ministry. Like all of us, Paul writes with greater depth and understanding as he ages. God has given Paul “grace upon grace” and “truth upon truth.” The apostle has walked faithfully with Christ. He has prayed fervently; and, he has walked through a myriad of experiences. The more difficult life becomes for Paul, the greater his joy and deeper his trust in God.
Often we fail to consider the sacrifice Paul made to follow Jesus, though Paul would emphatically state that it was God who sacrificed for Paul. Paul’s sacrifice was the “response” to God’s grace. He was a “pharisee of pharisees.” The apostle was well-respected as a pharisee and fervent in his belief. His passion for his office of Pharisee was most likely the underlying reason why Paul was given - or volunteered - for the task of ridding Judaism of the Christians. After one single experience on the Damascus Road, Paul left his former life behind. Jesus came to Paul, not vice versa. The community of Pharisees would now consider him a betrayer. He would become as vile to them as the Christians they persecuted. Yes, Paul surrendered all. It is also important to remember that Paul came from a family with close attachments to the Judaism embraced by the pharisees.
It is also helpful to repeat God’s message to Paul through Ananias. God would inform Paul that there was much to suffer
. This is not exactly the most exciting message for a new convert to hear! However, by the time Paul writes his theological masterpiece of Romans, he recognizes that it was the suffering that deepened his faith and empowered him to face the present and future with joyful confidence.
When we conduct an overview of Paul’s belief in Christ (as expressed in his writings), we discover six major themes. First, Paul understood well that we are sinful and cannot save ourselves. For Paul, the Mosaic Law was the teacher that instructed us in the reality of what we should be yet failed to be. Not only did the Law teach us our failure in keeping the Law, it also taught us that we cannot do it! Second, since we could not save ourselves, God saved us in Christ by choice. God chose to save us in Jesus Christ for the reason that He loves us. Love was and is the divine motivation at work in our redemption through Christ. Third, he believed in the reality of the Spirit-filled life. Paul believed the Holy Spirit was present in the Christian and especially in the Church. When we gather together, there is great spiritual power. Fourth, Paul believed the Church was the body of Jesus Christ. We are the presence of Jesus in the world, continuing the ministry of Jesus for ages to come. Fifth, Paul believed our life in Christ has given us true hope. Hope to Paul meant that Christ is with us at all times, never forsakes us, and uses every moment for the Kingdom of God. This was the major reason Paul did not fear adversity and suffering. He knew, in the hands of God, even suffering could reveal God’s Kingdom moving in the world. Finally, Paul believed there is life to come. Paul believed to be absent from the body was to be with the Lord. Therefore, death had no sting, the grave no victory. Of course, there were many other revelations of truth that Paul embraced. However, the above six seem to always find their way into Paul’s letters to the Church.
Today’s lesson emerges from the belief that we cannot save ourselves. Yet, God has done so through Christ. It is God’s grace that saves us, not our works. Works are the response
to God’s salvation, and, thus, very important to the Spirit-filled life. As Christians and members of the Church, we are members in the Kingdom of God. Thus, we are experiencing the Kingdom in the here and now, and we also anticipate its ultimate coming as expressed in Revelation 21.
We Were Dead
Death in the Bible means “separation.” Our sin leads to a self-centered life apart from God. Notice, I use the word “sin” instead of “sins.” Sins are those individual thoughts and actions that are destructive and dehumanizing. They violate God’s law of love as revealed in Jesus Christ. Remember, the law of love - or the Shema - encapsulated all Mosaic Law, especially the Ten Commandments. If we walk in the unconditional love of Jesus and respond by loving in kind, we walk the path of righteousness. Those who love God, love others. Thus we do not engage in idolatry, covetousness, adultery, etc. We separated from God, not because God has abandoned us. Our own actions and thoughts separate us from the righteous life God desires for us. We are separated from the life God desires for us. We cannot become our better selves, nor accomplish all that is possible apart from the Lord. Our sins also separate us from one another. All divisions that dehumanize and cause destruction arise from our sin. The life to which we are called is a life in community. To live the Christian life is to be committed to the Christian family. We are also to live in outreach to the world of lost, hurting people. Our sins leads us to consider ourselves above the greater good of all that God desires.
“Sin” on the other hand refers to a “state of being.” To use the word sin is to identify our “sin nature.” Sin is that state of being in which we live as those separated from God. Our individual sins create a sin nature and lifestyle. When we embrace our sin and choose to ignore God, we walk alone - not “with God” - though God is always with us. Our sins and sin separate us from God, each other, and the life God desires for us. Thus, Paul wrote “The wages of sin is death.” Notice he did not mention specific “sins” but “sin.” The consequences of a lifestyle that neglects and ignores God is, to Paul, death.
Jesus died for all of the sins
we have committed and gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit to overcome our sin nature.
As Christians, we are a forgiven people. However, we are still tempted to compromise our faith daily. The Spirit within us brings to remembrance all that Jesus taught and did, opens our eyes to the presence of God in daily walk, and enlivens our conscience to recognize that which is of God and those things that are not. This walk in the Spirit is the “sanctified walk.” The Spirit within us sets us apart from the world, continually cleanses us as the conscience calls us to repentance, and empowers us to reject and overcome the temptations of the world.
What is your understanding of spiritual death? Adam and Eve were told that if they ate of the “other tree” they would die. They did not physically die. Therefore, what did “death” mean in the story of Eden? Can you identify those things from which we were separated in Eden? Prior to surrendering our life to Christ, we lived in a state of separation. Can you identify those things from which you were separated? How would you describe your life in Christ as it relates to our former spiritual death? Take a private, personal inventory of your life. Write down those things that separated you from the meaningful life you have now. Also, write down those things you now have in your life since following Christ.
Using the metaphor of the physical body, a dead body cannot resurrect itself. It has no power to make the lungs operate or cause the heart to beat. A dead body can only be resuscitated when there is outside action acting upon it. When the heart stops, those in the medical field or a good Samaritan with knowledge of CPR, take action to restart the heart. Without such action, death is certain. Thus, we are spiritually dead and cannot save ourselves. However, God’s love and grace acted upon us in Jesus Christ.
I find it interesting that the Gospel reveals that when Jesus died “He breathed his last.” In CPR, we empty ourselves of breath and breathe it into another that the lungs and heart might work again. Jesus was that breath for all humanity. Those, who by faith receive that eternal breath, are made alive in Christ. Breath is a major metaphor in Scripture. In Genesis, God breathed into us “the breath of life.” God tells Ezekiel to call forth the wind, same word as breath, upon the dry bones in the valley. Jesus then breathed His last, and at Pentecost the Holy Spirit came as a “rushing, might wind (same word for breath).”
In Ephesians 2, Paul reminds us that “all of us” lived at one time and were residents of a dark, egocentric existence. I once heard a pop song on the radio that contained the lyric, “I see the world and feel no romance.” I apologize for not being able to write down the artists’ name or the title of the song. I heard the song before the time of the cell phone and my memory often fails me. The artists were singing that they felt a disconnect from the world. Prior to our life in Christ, Paul implies that we did feel a romance with the world. The darkness courted us, and we responded. Paul will remind us in this text that in Christ we too will no longer feel the romance with the world. We will still feel the temptations and the pull. Yet, we have the Spirit within us to rise above it. Our romance is now with the Kingdom of God.
When Paul wrote that for the Christian, “The former things pass away and everything becomes new,” he doesn’t mean that we are instantly perfected. Many have struggled in the early years of their faith. They have given their life to Christ. Yet, the old continues to exist and tempt. So what is new? Our desire
is new! We no longer desire that romance with the world. We no longer desire to live in the darkness. When we, in weak moments, engage in the world, we feel a sense of guilt. The guilt is not to condemn but to call us back to righteousness. After all, righteousness is what we desire. Our desire, under the power of the Holy Spirit, moves us ever onward and higher in Christ Jesus.
Can you express how the objects of your desire has changed in Christ? What is that for which you most long? When our former life rears its head, what are the ways that God helps us to keep our eyes on the Kingdom of God? What is the benefit of guilt when we walk with Jesus?
The Redemptive Conjunction
When Paul addresses our sin and consequences, he almost always moves toward the conjunction “but.” It is Paul’s manner of stating, “Yes we were deserving of judgement, BUT God acted in Christ.” He writes in Romans, “The wages of sin is death, BUT the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” But, however, and yet
are often conjunctions of hope in Scripture. What a great message follows that conjunction! “BUT out of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.”
Paul shares with us the eternal foundation for our redemption: God’s love
. Yet, Paul doesn’t just write “God’s love,” he writes “God’s great
love.” We have no language to adequately describe or capture the depth, height, and breadth of God’s love. When John recorded “For God so loved the world,” he could have omitted the word “so” and the sentence would not lose meaning. “So” is that tiny word we often use when we cannot find a word. I listened to a young female church member describe her frustration with a male teen over his behavior with the words, “He is just so…so…so aggravating!” John wants us to know God so…so…so loves us! God’s love is the foundation of grace. This love acted upon us when we were dead in our sins and trespasses. Love is the divine CPR breath that awakens our soul. God’s love in Christ was the eternal breath that raised us from our spiritual death. God has made us alive “in Christ” and “with Christ.” The loving power that raised Jesus from the dead is the same powerful love that “made us alive.”
What do you think the apostle John meant when he wrote, “Not that we loved God first, but that God loved us first, but gave his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”? Though not a literal breath, can you share the moment - or moments - when God awakened you in Christ? How has your vision changed? Your hearing? Since it can often be overwhelming to describe verbally all that God has done for us in Christ, what are the other ways we can share (along with our verbal witness) our experience, joy, hope, and meaningful life with others?
Paul continues that we were raised with Jesus and seated us with him in the heavenly realms. As Christians we are in this world but not of this world. We are spiritual residents in the Kingdom of God while residents in this world. Our eyes now begin to see that transcendent Kingdom alive and moving in the world. When we see purest love, we are looking upon the Kingdom. When we see justice, mercy, and grace we are gazing at the Kingdom here and yet to come.
The greatest physicists and scientists believe there are many dimensions of reality. We live in a three-dimensional world (four if we consider time) and yet try to comprehend God who stands over and beyond it all. If there are a thousand dimensions of reality, God is the sum total of all of them. The Kingdom of God is another dimension of reality. It is more than just “another,” it is the reality of God. At the end of life, we move from this life into the kingdom of God. However, again, it is important to realize that God’s Kingdom is present in the world. The Kingdom is revealed through love, light, truth, beauty, meaning, etc. I add the “etc.” because no person can capture all the means God employs to reveal the divine nature and truth to us. Paul believed that right now, as Christians, we live as those sitting with Jesus in the Kingdom of God. Physically, we are here, alive in the world. Spiritually, we are alive in the Kingdom as God uses our presence here to reveal the will of God for all.
Have you always understood the Kingdom of God as a “place” we go after death? What do you believe it means when we are “in the world but not of it”? Can you share moments when the Kingdom of God moved upon you and your life? Since we are citizens of God’s Kingdom how does this citizenship give us purpose in this life?
It is at this point that Paul introduces us to a proper understanding of grace. Grace is an undeserved gift. Our salvation and new life in Christ is a gift of grace. We could do nothing to earn it. Remember, we were dead in our trespasses and unable to raise ourselves to life. We were acted upon by God. God has always been the initiator of relationships. We did not love God first, God loved us first. It is God’s great love that prompts and motivates us to love in turn. Thus, our life in grace is a response
to God’s grace. If God had not moved upon us in greatest love, we could not live the life of love and compassion that we now live. We would remain lost in our sin.
It is God’s grace that saved us and continues to move us ever upward and higher in our life. Paul emphatically states that God’s grace is a gift we receive by faith. We cannot work for it, thus none of us can boast. For Paul, our total salvation is a gift from God, and our life is a response to that salvation. We accept this great gift by faith. I can offer my spouse a gift out of great affection; however, she must open her arms and receive it. The gift of salvation is not something we can see or touch. Thus, to receive it by faith is to act in utter trust. God has revealed He is trustworthy in Christ. Thus, we confidently accept what God has done for us in Christ and continue to embrace that gift every day of our life.
Humility is a vital facet of our faith. If we dared believe we deserved God’s grace, or in some manner earned it, we would suffer from the sin of pride. Humility is the recognition of God’s greatness and also our frailty. It does not mean we perceive ourselves as worthless. After all, God perceives us as precious and loves us. We were loved prior to our accepting God’s grace in Christ. For, again, God’s love acted upon us when we spiritually separated from God and the Kingdom of God. We often speak as though God loved us on the cross. God loved us before the cross; for this love is the very reason Christ accepted the cross to redeem all the world. Humility and faith are intertwined in the Christian life.
Did you at one time try to earn God’s love and attention? Why was it impossible? Why was it unnecessary? How is God’s grace at work in our life now? Do you serve God as a grateful response to what God did for us in Jesus Christ? Or do we find ourselves tempted to gain favor with our actions? Do we hope our actions will move God to hear our prayers? Why are the last two questions rooted in misunderstanding and falsehood?
Paul reminds us that as followers of Jesus, we are God’s handiwork. The Greek word for handiwork is “poema,” from where we derive our word poem. We are each a poem of God. We are eloquent expressions of God’s grace. Each of us, like a poem, have our own rhythm and rhyme. No two of us are alike, yet we all have something to say and do that is beautiful in the eyes of God. Few things fill the human spirit with fulfillment like purpose. We have the will to make our choices. When we choose to follow Jesus and participate in the Kingdom of God moving in the world, God fashions us into works of divine art. When we think of art we think of the artist as inspired. The word inspired comes from the Latin “inspirare.” The word inspire means “to breathe.” The poet takes in the world about them and takes in the wonder and beauty as they would a breath. Their exhale of that inspired breath is their poetry, their art. God has breathed into us the Holy Spirit. We have taken that inspired breath through faith. Our lives are thus exhaling that breath as works of compassion and redemption. After all, living involves taking in the breath and letting it go. Only then can we take in the next breath. This serves as a great reminder of spiritual life. In the beginning, God breathed into us the breath of life. We refused to give back obedience and stopped spiritually breathing. When Jesus breathed his last, he gave to God everything we refused to give. Faith in Jesus, metaphorically speaking, is to accept his exhale. Accepting Jesus as Lord doesn’t just involve “getting something.” It first involves our ability to let go. When we accept Christ, we let go of our sins, for God forgives them. We let go of our misguided dreams. We let go of grudges and bitterness. In doing so, we receive a new breath of life, an eternal breath.
The eternal life God has breathed into us by grace empowers us to continually let go of all things destructive and accept all things righteous and holy. Again, we are God’s works of art in process. No two of us are the same. Like poetry, we each have our own rhythm and rhyme in the world. Each of us is a unique expression of God’s creativity, Jesus’ love, and the Spirit’s power.
Have you ever considered yourself to be a work of God’s art? Have you perceived others as God’s work of art? If we recognize that every person has God’s artistic fingerprints all over their life, how does this change for the better the way to treat others?
Again, Paul has packed so much into a few verses. Our greatest metaphors cannot come close in describing the wonder of God’s gift in Jesus. Paul’s inspired words and the imagery he uses allow us to understand the nature and wonder of our faith. We can contemplate the greatness of God’s love for us and for what God has made possible for us. Most amazing is the love of God in Christ, and the nature of God’s Kingdom remains far greater than human words can describe. We need another word! John revealed we have that word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Holy Spirit inspired the words of Scripture. When we read those words with the living Word in our hearts, we are enlivened and illumined. Paul wrote earlier to the Corinthian Church in I Cor. 2:9, “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what God has in store for those who love him.” Thus, there is always more love, light, truth, joy, and meaning to come! The best is yet to come!
Almighty God, thank you for your indescribable love in Jesus Christ. Thank you for the life you have given us as residents in your Kingdom. May each of us continue to humbly accept your grace that we might become inspired instruments of your divine will in the world. In Jesus name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at email@example.com.