I wonder, how do you think God feels about you? Does he love you? Like you? Put up with you? Is he angry with you?
Of the two main ways Christians see God, the most common emphasizes God as King. Supreme Ruler of the Universe. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Sovereign over everyone and everything. That is who God is. But if that becomes your driving image, when you violate or break one of the King’s commands, the best-case scenario is that the King chooses to forgive you and treat you as if you had kept the commands. You know you broke them. You know he saw. But he chooses to let it go.
What that tends to cultivate is a sense that you never measure up, that God isn’t particularly pleased with you. It’s a strange thing that we sing “Jesus loves me, this I know,” but not know it, and not feel loved.
Here’s an analogy. If you view God primarily as Ruler, your relationship with him is kind of like the relationship between drivers and traffic cops.
My former next-door neighbor is a Fishers police officer. He loves finding illegal guns. I’m glad for cops who love keeping bad guys from doing bad things. I feel good about them. I’m not glad when I get pulled over. Yes, when.
Whether you get a ticket, a warning, or a break, you don’t drive away loving traffic police. You may feel grateful that they let you off the hook for a big fine and a jump in insurance premiums. But you don’t love that officer.
It’s not all that different when our primary image for God is Ruler, divine cop. If all being saved means is that God lets me off the hook and counts me as though I’m a law-abiding citizen, then relief is about the best it gets. But you’re not going to love a God who’s constantly waiting to point out your faults and pull you over. Ironically, what that view of God does is hinder us from keeping the greatest commandment, which is that we love the Lord with all our heart.”
Skye Jethani, who followed me on staff with the church I came from in Wheaton, describes sitting down with a bunch of college students for an open, confidential discussion on the things they’re struggling with. What came up time and again from smart students, who grew up in Christian families, was the sense that God isn’t pleased with them. How can we sing “God so loved the world,” but God doesn’t seem to love…me? Do you ever wonder along these lines?
Some of you are right here. This is where you live. So this week is for you, and for your friends and family who struggle to reconcile God being sinless, with us knowing our sins; how to reconcile God being perfect, with us knowing we’re far from perfect.
How can I love a God who’s more like a heavenly cop than my heavenly Father?
What I want to do today is anchor you in your identity in Christ, in who God says you are. Because the most important thing about you is who God declares you to be. From Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus, we’re going to touch on three images God uses to anchor you to the love of God.
If you would, open your Bible or Bible app to Ephesians chapter one. While you turn there, let me set it up for you. This letter was written around the year 61 A.D. to believers in a large city in what is today Western Turkey.
Ephesus contained one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis, also called the Temple of Diana, because it was known by both Greek and Roman names. The temple was about as big as a football field—huge—with more than 120 60-foot high marble columns. Visually impressive.
Ephesus also had an outdoor theater that seated 25,000 people.
Ephesus’ marketplace was the size of two football fields, selling everything you could want, an ancient predecessor to the Mall of America.
So when you hear Ephesus, don’t think Cicero. Think New York City. Think Shanghai. Think Tokyo. As Paul pens this letter, Ephesus is perhaps the fourth largest city in the world.
Paul had come there a few years before, living there more than two years and getting the church started. Having been a few years since they were together, Paul writes to give them a refresher on whose we are, and in light of that, how we’re to then live. Those two themes divide the letter neatly in half, 50% on the power of our identity in Christ, 50% on the practical outworking of that.
Adoption, redemption, and sealing
Paul wraps everything important around three pictures: Adoption, redemption, and sealing. If you wrestle with whether God is pleased with you, this is what you’ll want to anchor your soul to. If you want to take notes, it’s three declarations that are true for every man, woman, and child who trusts in Jesus. Here’s the first:
Praise God, the Father adopts us into His family! Jesus’ greatest gift to us is revealing God as our Father in heaven. Yes, he is Sovereign. Yes, he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, ruling over everyone and everything. But what Jesus emphasized to everyday people like you is that, praise God, God is our heavenly Father. Look with me at verses 3-5. Paul writes:
“All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure.” Ephesians 1:3-5
God had his eye on you before you were even a twinkle in your father’s eyes. Even before creation itself, God loved and chose you.
I’m able to say a thing or two about adoption, and love. When Karen and I decided to pursue adopting children, we loved Meghan long before we met her. Every adoptive parent tells the same story. She loves to hear the stories surrounding her adoption:
About that first picture of an infant who very visibly was upset that someone had stopped her nap to get her posed for the camera;
About her first time in a bathtub, frightened until I got in the tub and showed her how much fun it was—and before long she was having a blast;
About her catching a heavy cold right away while we were in China, Karen describing me and Meghan asleep in the middle of the night—that when Meghan’s breathing paused, so did mine. A parent’s love.
Now if you’re willing to go deeper with me for a few minutes, what adoption meant to Christians in Ephesus was perhaps even more powerful. One of the plays the Ephesians would have gone to watch was the Greek play Oedipus Rex. In it, a king and queen are warned that when they have a son, he will cause the family horrible damage.
So King Laius takes his baby’s feet, pins them together, and abandons the baby in a field. A shepherd finds the baby and names him Oedipus, meaning “swollen feet,” and Oedipus is then raised by someone else.
Gruesome story, but here’s what you need to know: the part about abandoning a baby didn’t shock the Ephesians. Child abandonment was common in their day. In Roman culture, when a baby was born and placed at the father’s feet, the father either picked up the baby, thereby claiming it, or turned around and walked away, rejecting his own child.
As Jeff Manion points out, “Maybe he wanted a boy and had a girl; maybe he wanted a girl and had a boy. Maybe he detects some kind of defect or birthmark that displeases him…The child would be exposed to the elements for the gods to decide his fate. Frequently, a child would be taken to…the marketplace, and abandoned there. Sometimes someone would come along and take the child in but have them raised to be a slave or prostitute. It was to [that kind of] culture that Paul declares that God adopts us into his family.
Paul is writing to an abandonment culture. There was supposedly a physician near Ephesus who even wrote a manual on how to measure an abandoned infant’s dimensions to increase the odds of picking one who would make a strong slave. The slave children would have considered themselves the lucky ones.
You may be one of the many Christians today who feel more a slave than a son or daughter. You feel like God is an unpleasable Master far more than you experience love for a heavenly Father. You didn’t create that: it’s an unintended consequence of overemphasizing one truth about God at the loss of what Jesus most strongly emphasized.
If you have come to know Jesus, your most defining moment isn’t who threw you out but who took you in
Paul writes to Christians in an abandonment culture and says: If you have come to know Jesus, your most defining moment isn’t who threw you out but who took you in. God picked you out, God picked you up, and God brought you home into his family. He loves you. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure.
Our daughter was less than a year old when we adopted her. Last month she turned 18. She knows she’s loved. There’s no question about that. Karen and I are not traffic cops in the rearview mirror, waiting for her to slip up. We’re her parents who love her and chose her. So is God to you.
What matters most about you is not who threw you out but who brought you in. When you found yourself feeling drawn to trust in Jesus personally, for yourself, as your decision, you need to understand that that was God picking you out, picking you up, and bringing you home to his family. What matters most about you is what your heavenly Father has done for you. When you’re struggling and doubting, say it out loud: “Praise God, he has adopted me.” Remember who you are. Remember whose you are. God is your Father. There’s the first picture Paul paints, telling people in a throwaway culture that God has adopted you. You have a home with him.
The second declaration that’s true for every man, woman, and child who trusts in Jesus is:
Praise God, the Son redeems us from sin’s penalty! God the Father adopts us into his family. And praise God, the Son redeems us from sin’s penalty. Look at the picture Paul paints in verses 6&7:
“So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins.” Ephesians 1:6-7
Other translations speak of redemption. The only time I ever heard of redemption growing up was turning in glass bottles for redemption at the local supermarket. But to the Ephesians, redemption was tied to the slave market. Paul is writing not only to an abandonment culture but also to a slave culture. So he takes something they’re all familiar with, and uses it to convey what Jesus has done for us.
Ephesus was the center of slave trade in the Roman Empire. Slavery revolved around who bought you. If you were one of those abandoned infants and someone sold you at the slave market, at any point the person who bought you might decide to sell you off to someone else. Take you back to the market and go for an upgrade. I know that’s crass—as was the buying and selling of slaves.
Paul takes that slave trade term and uses it to picture the cost to Jesus of redeeming us, taking us off the market and granting us freedom. He paid not with Roman coins, but with his own blood—his life for yours. That’s how God feels about you. That’s how much God loves you.
Writing to a culture where people were bought and sold, Paul says, “Do you realize that somebody paid for you and has freed you?” He says, “Remember who you are. Remember whose you are. God has become your Father who loves you. And Jesus has become your Redeemer who has freed you.”
There’s the true story of a private meeting the day of a college commencement ceremony. Members of the graduating class from 50 years before and faculty were invited to attend, along with three students who, upon graduating, had committed to devoting the next two years to serving the poorest of the poor in India.
Those students thought they were there just to be commissioned and sent out with a blessing—which they were—it’s a Christian university. But then something happened that they didn’t know was coming. The school’s president turned to them and said, “I have a piece of news for you. There’s somebody you don’t know—an anonymous donor—who is so moved by what you’re doing that he has given a gift to this university in your name, on your behalf.”
The president turned to the first student and said, “You are forgiven your debt of $105,000.” He turns to the next student: “You’re forgiven your debt of $70,000.” He then turns to the third student: “You are forgiven your debt of $130,000.” All three students had no idea this was coming. They were ambushed by grace, by undeserved favor—blown away that somebody they didn’t even know would pay their debt. True story.
John Ortberg, in the sermon “Patch ‘Em,” Menlo Park Presbyterian, Menlo Park, California (preached 5-17-09)
What an anonymous donor did for those college students, God’s Son has done for you: paid the price to free you from sin’s penalty, which is death and eternal separation from God. For the believer, that’s gone. Your destiny has changed.
Your identity has changed: with God as your Father, you are his son or daughter, whom he loves.
And your destiny has changed: with Jesus as your Redeemer, you are freed from sin’s penalty. God’s kindness moved him to do this…for you.
And the third declaration true for every man, woman, and child who trusts in Jesus is:
Praise God, the Spirit guarantees our eternity! So recap with me:
- Praise God, the Father adopts us into his family.
- Praise God, the Son redeems us from sin’s penalty.
- And praise God, the Spirit guarantees our eternity.
The Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—work together for the good of those who love him. Amazing! As Paul writes in verses 13 & 14…
“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” Ephesians 1:13-14
Slaves back then got tattooed with the family seal of who they were serving. That’s the third picture that Paul draws from—the image of sealing, marking, promising, guaranteeing your future.
The closest modern-day equivalent I can think of in our nation is the distinct tattoos that gang members get once they’re accepted into the gang. Paul takes a negative like that and repurposes the image to convey something positive spiritually.
If you’ve seen the film “Gladiator,” the lead character played by Russell Crowe has four letters tattooed on his arm: They mark him, identify him, set him apart as a General who serves the emperor. In the early Roman Empire, after 25 years of service soldiers received a monetary payment and 40 acres of land as their reward. By the year 5 A.D., Caesar Augustus changed that from land and some cash, to a cash payment equal to 13 years’ pay.
So Paul, writing to a culture that tattoos people to show either who owns them or who they are devoted to, repurposes that image to convey what the Holy Spirit does for the Christian. He is the promise of what is to come. The Holy Spirit who came to dwell with you when you trusted yourself to Jesus is God’s personal promise. The Holy Spirit is God whispering, “I’ve got you. You’re secure.
- God is your Father: he has adopted you.
- Jesus is your Redeemer: he has freed you.
- And I am God’s promise that reward awaits you.”
More than 40 acres and some cash. More than 13 years’ pay, what you will inherit in the age to come exceeds description.
If you are trusting in Jesus, then say this with me, let’s declare it out loud:
God the Father has adopted me!
God’s Son has redeemed me!
God’s Spirit has got me!
This is who you are.
This is what matters most about you.
Jobs? They come and go.
Kids grow up and move away.
As your age advances, physical decline will creep in.
But this—this threefold truth, anchored in the Triune God—will never change.
God has adopted you as his son or daughter and welcomed you into his forever family.
He loves you. Jesus has fully paid for all your sins—no more threat of hell and wrath. He is kind to you.
And the Holy Spirit guarantees your eternal inheritance, with him and with all who have walked with Jesus throughout our days. He’s got you!
Would you allow me to pray for you right now? Let’s pray.
Adopted, redeemed, and sealed: Wow! Thank you, Lord, for how you led Paul to stretch for pictures worth a thousand words, capturing the wonder of who you are, and what you do for all who confess Jesus as Lord and believe in our hearts that you raised him from the dead.
We do believe. And so we take by faith what is declared here.
Anchor us, we pray, to these never-changing truths.
Change our mental and emotional picture of who you are, and of how you feel about us, to match what you declare here.
We ask you to rebuke the enemy of our souls as he fights to see Christians divided, defeated, and demoralized. Bind him, we pray. Empower us to resist him and stand firm on these truths.
We gladly confess God as our Father who loves us.
We gladly confess Jesus as our Redeemer who frees us from sin’s penalty.
And we gladly confess the Holy Spirit as your personal promise of spiritual security.
In light of these truths, we love you. And so we commit ourselves to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!