PREACHING AND TEACHING STRATEGIES
Exegetical and Theological Synthesis
Paul underscored certain truths about those who follow Jesus. When readers were “in Christ,” they were chosen, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, informed about God’s plan, and sealed by the Spirit. God had crafted a breath- taking “story”—his plan—and he had included believers in it. These blessings from God the Father were mediated through Christ and the Spirit. Because Paul’s readers were “in Christ,” they were the recipients of grace, carried on the tide of God’s love. The apostle Paul modeled the appropriate response: because God had blessed them, they were to bless him: they were to “applaud” him (v. 3). That was their raison d’être—to glorify God (vv. 6, 10, 12) and enjoy him forever. Blessing God is done primarily by speaking words of adoration, but Paul also included the point that believers praise God by living holy and blameless lives (Eph. 1:4). Paul developed this idea further in the second half of the letter, and in the meantime he simply invited readers to stand in awe of God’s love, mercy, wisdom, and power.
Let’s applaud God for including us in his story.
Note: Although verses 1–2 form a separate pericope, it may not be necessary to preach an entire sermon on the letter’s salutation.
What does it mean?
What does it mean to applaud God for including us in his story? The first part of the preaching idea captures the idea of blessing God (berakah). Applauding someone or something we appreciate happens nearly every day at events such as a retirement banquet or sports event. I (Jeffrey) vividly remember the applause from more than ten thousand people in attendance at an event that honored pastors. The moving tribute was a way of blessing them as the applause rolled on and on for more than two minutes. In the same way, followers of Christ honor or “applaud” him with their words and actions.
The second part of the preaching idea, including us in his story, captures the panoramic depiction of salvation, the string of actions God has performed for us (calling, adoption, redemption, etc.). This might be illustrated with everyday examples of being included. For instance, when treats are being handed out at a birthday party, children squirm and say, “Remember me, remember me!” They mean, “Include me, bless me too, in this event”; and of course, the host then includes them in the event with a treat. In the same way, God has opened the door and invited us to his spiritual feast. As 2 Peter 1:3–4 (ESV) says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness . . . so that through them you may become partakers of divine nature.” Ephesians 1:1–14 is so dense with theological terms as it describes the “story,” that you may want to create a short sermon series just from this passage.
A contrast could be drawn between God’s magnificent gift of salvation and the some- times worthless, sometimes extravagant gifts we give at Christmas. Every year since 1926, Neiman Marcus has published the “Christmas Book,” filled with those kinds of gifts. In 2019, you could give a custom designed doghouse for only $75,000, an hour in the chair with famous makeup artist Mario Dedivanovic for only $400,000, or a 007 Aston Martin de- signed by actor Daniel Craig who played James Bond. Only seven cars were available and—you guessed it—they cost $700,007.
Is it true?
Is it true that we should give God our applause because he’s included us in his story? In everyday life when people welcome us into their home, team, small group, or recreation, we naturally thank them. It is a joy to be included. That is also our response to God when he includes us in his plan. The Bible gives many examples of God’s people giving him the praise he deserves. Moses and the people sang a song of praise after God delivered them from the Egyptians through the Red Sea (Exod. 15:1–18). When God revealed how David’s family would feature in God’s story for the world, David offered heartfelt words of praise in response (2 Sam. 7:18–29). Solomon also applauded God after the dedication of the temple (2 Chron. 6:12–42). Some of the Psalms declare God’s praises for blessing his people and including them in his story (Ps. 78; 105; 136). Paul paused to applaud God’s name after he had recalled God’s awe-inspiring plans for Jews and Gentiles in salvation history (Rom. 11:33–36). When God shows his grace and power by including undeserving people in his story, God’s people applaud him to express their praise. A rich passage like this is hard to contain in a single preaching idea, so depending on your listeners, you may want to tackle some of the supporting ideas as well. Check out a way to address one of them: predestination.
How might we “applaud” God? This could be done in the church service itself. The congregation could put the preaching idea into immediate action with a time of testimony. A smaller congregation may offer spontaneous testimonies of praise, or in a larger church a planned testimony from one of the leaders could applaud God. Blessing God could also be done by singing. A series of songs could be placed after the sermon. In that case, the sermon might move seamlessly into those songs without a conventional conclusion. In this church service, perhaps all of the prayers could be composed only of praise, with supplication being “off-limits.”
Prompts to Help People Share a Testimony
- I have seen God in my life when…
- God spoke to me through…
- Here is the attribute of God that means most to me right now…
- If God had not… I would be…
- Because God did… for me, I want to do… for others.
Applauding God can also be done privately. In one of our devotional times, we might discipline ourselves to focus solely on praise. As above, supplication could be off-limits. Singing or listening to praise songs is another way to applaud God in our hearts. Some people spend hours a day in their cars, so why not use that time to applaud God? Perhaps the congregation could be challenged to write a psalm that applauds God. Examples from your own or others’ journals could be presented as models.
But applauding is more than saying words. It also includes acts of kindness, charity, and justice. Because humans are the imago Dei—the image of God—the way we treat one another is a way of honoring (or dishonoring) God. That is what Jesus taught in Matthew 25:40: helping “the least of these my brothers” is equivalent to helping Jesus himself. A simple act of kindness like picking up your children’s board game, strewn across the floor, can be a way of applauding God. Or a more profound act like giving sacrificially to a clean water project in Africa blesses God by blessing others.
 One of the ideas that supports the preaching idea may spark disagreement: predestination. Listeners may respond: “Is it true that God chooses some people to be part of his story? Does that mean that he does not choose others? That sounds arbitrary and unfair!” To defend this passage’s assertion that God does indeed predestine those he has chosen, here are three suggestions.
First, the purpose of the passage is that we worship, or “applaud,” God. As we preach, we can model this. We need not debate about him as though we are apologists. By applauding God even as we preach, we assume a worshipper’s stance that should hopefully affect our tone and delivery. In turn we might then influence the listeners to approach the doctrine of predestination with a warm spirit.
Second, while this passage is one of the most comprehensive statements in the Bible of God’s initiative and power in salvation, it does not say everything. In particular, this passage does not spend much time on another biblical truth—human responsibility. But the passage implies our need to respond to God, especially in verse 13, which speaks of hearing and believing the gospel. By acknowledging the fact of human responsibility, biblical to the core, listeners may be more likely to concur with this passage’s depiction of the doctrine of predestination.
Third, it’s difficult to fully harmonize God’s sovereignty with human responsibility. This is an “antimony”— an apparent contradiction between two true statements. The Bible teaches both, so we do too, but in this pas- sage, God’s sovereignty is on center stage. As the author of the story, God creates the storyline, develops the characters, and moves the plot to a happy ending.
This post is adapted from the forthcoming Ephesians: A Commentary for Biblical Preaching, written by Gregory S. Magee and Jeffrey D. Arthurs. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
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