Why do we treat a canvas that is painted differently than a blank canvas? Why do we put our kids’ pictures or stories up on the refrigerator? Why do we keep a letter from the one we love for years? Because something added value. Something made these things more than just the sum of their parts. There was canvas or paper and something to make marks. Yet a painting can sell for millions of dollars, and we keep the letters and drawing for years. Something added value - in this case, it was the personal touch of the one who took ordinary things and created something of great value.
I wonder how many of us feel like we are just the canvas. That we are worthless, useless, unworthy of love, incapable of offering anything of value to the world? And how many of us long to believe that we are that letter or picture in whom someone takes delight instead of that discarded, crumbled up paper that’s only fit for the trash? In Ephesians 2, Paul gives the ultimate added value by showing what Christ does in us and for us. First, he explains what kind of material God has to work with.
As for you, don’t you remember how you used to just exist? Corpses, dead in life, buried by transgressions, wandering the course of this perverse world. You were the offspring of the prince of the power of air—oh, how he owned you, just as he still controls those living in disobedience. I’m not talking about the outsiders alone; we were all guilty of falling headlong for the persuasive passions of this world.
We all have had our fill of indulging the flesh and mind, obeying impulses to follow perverse thoughts motivated by dark powers. As a result, our natural inclinations led us to be children of wrath, just like the rest of humankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I like to think of myself. However, that’s the raw materials. That’s us before Christ. We’re not just plain canvas; we are stained and soiled. We’re not just paper – we are torn and soggy. Paul doesn’t pull any punches. We were corpses, dead in life. We were the zombies in a much more serious sense of the word than most horror movies show. Those are just biological problems. Ours is deeply spiritual.
I find it interesting how how an increasing number of modern stories use a thing like a zombie – the Walking Dead - to make a point that we find in the Bible 2,000 years ago. It’s as if no matter how far from Christ people wander, there is this lingering dread that we will somehow be dead even while we live, just wandering through a world that robs us of life and offers us nothing in return. A recent book series called The Zombie Bible takes incidents from the Bible or early church history and inserts zombies – which sounds silly, but the author (who takes the Bible very seriously) uses them to stand in for the deepest expression of being dead in our sin.
This world was one of hunger, filled with those who would devour you—both among the dead and among the living.… Like a violent fever, the hunger eats away mind and spirit. In the end, everything that we truly are is gone. Only the hunger remains. Even other men and women are no longer anything but… meat for our desires and obsessions. Then we are lost— unless some other brings a Gift. We cannot recover ourselves alone.” – From What Our Eyes Have Witnessed
A recent book and movie called Warm Bodies described the rise of these walking dead as the result of people giving in to what they believed was the meaninglessness of life. One of his characters says of himself,
“We recognize civilization, but we have no role in it. We are just here. We do what we do, time passes, and nobody asks any questions…We may appear mindless, but we aren’t…We grunt and groan, we shrug and nod, and sometimes a few words slip out. It’s not that different from before… I’ve never thought of these other creatures walking around me as people. Human, yes, but not people. We eat and sleep and shuffle through the fog, walking a marathon with no finish line, no medals, no cheering… We view ourselves the same way we view the Living: as meat. Nameless, faceless, disposable.” – Warm Bodies
That’s not a bad description of what many of us wrestle with. How often do we shuffle through the fog of life with no goal? We think we have no role in life. We believe we are just here. And if that’s what we are stuck with, that's lousy. But Paul says we are not fated to shuffle through life as nameless, faceless, disposable people driven by hungers that can never be satisfied.
But God, with the unfathomable richness of His love and mercy focused on us, united us with the Anointed One and infused our lifeless souls with life—even though we were buried under mountains of sin—and saved us by His grace. He raised us up with Him and seated us in the heavenly realms with our beloved Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King.
He did this for a reason: so that for all eternity we will stand as a living testimony to the incredible riches of His grace and kindness that He freely gives to us by uniting us with Jesus the Anointed. For it’s by God’s grace that you have been saved. You receive it through faith. It was not our plan or our effort. It is God’s gift, pure and simple. You didn’t earn it, not one of us did, so don’t go around bragging that you must have done something amazing. For we are the product of His hand, heaven’s poetry etched on lives, created in the Anointed, Jesus, to accomplish the good works God arranged long ago. (Ephesians 2:4-10)
Lots of worldviews offer a solution for the problem of walking in our own life of death and feeling like we are worth nothing. Let’s go back to the two books I cited earlier. Warm Bodies has a solution: “We will exhume ourselves. We will fight the curse and break it. We will cry and bleed and lust and love, and we will cure death. We will be the cure. Because we want it.”
The problem is, that never happens. It’s a humanist salvation story, but nothing in the history of the world suggests that solution will work. Humanity’s never been the cure of the deepest, darkest aches in our souls. We’ve always been the problem. Even when we fix a particular issue, it’s only a matter of time before we ruin it again.
- We said, “Hey, let’s get more energy by harnessing the power of the atom!” and then figured out how to use it to kill a lot of people.
- We said, “Let’s cure disease with stem cells!” and eventually began to plunder the bodies of unborn babies for our benefit.
- We said, “Hey, wouldn’t we be healthier if we could learn about sex earlier and more explicitly? The problem with our culture is that we are prudish and repressed. ” And eventually we found ourselves in a culture where STD’s are epidemic, and pornography and the hook up culture first desensitizes us then damages us, sometimes deeply but always profoundly (and never beyond hope of redemption, I must add).
Nothing in human history suggests we are able to save ourselves. G.K. Chesterton, a famous author, was once asked by a newspaper, “What’s wrong with the world today?” He famously responded, “I am.” On the other hand, the other story I mentioned actually got the solution right:
“What do we know to be true? Nothing is broken that cannot be remade. Nothing is ill that cannot be healed, nothing captive that cannot be freed. That is what [Jesus] taught us.” – from What Our Eyes Have Witnessed, The Zombie Bible series.
That’s actually the gospel (which is what you would hope to find in a book series with the word ‘Bible’ in the title). That’s part of the good news. Paul says we can do nothing on our own – our default is to be one the spiritually Walking Dead – we don’t raise ourselves up. Now, through Christ, we are raised and made fully alive. Heaven’s poetry is etched on our lives – other translations say we are His handiwork. God plans for us to be the ones through whom good work is done in the world .
So if Christ is “raising us up”, if God is restoring all these things in us and putting us on His mission, there are at least three important things that follow.
1. This should bring to us a staggering amount of humility. Paul says none of us can boast about how we contributed to the project of moving from spiritual death to life. “Don't’ go around bragging as if you did something amazing.” Any time we think, “I just wish people could be like me,” we have missed the point. We should be thinking, “All that I am is a gift of grace. I will pray that God works in the life of others so they too can experience God’s grace.” Paul never says, “Look at me!” He always says, “Look at Christ in me.” I would guess that’s because the minute he says, “Look at me!” someone else could say, “Do you mean all of you? Do you realize what you were doing 10 years ago? You killed people!”
Why would I say, “Look at me”? Just ask my wife if I have given a perfect picture of what it means to be a godly husband. “Oh, do you mean all those times you overlooked my heart? Do you mean those times we argued and you overwhelmed me with your words and presence? Do you mean that time you ran yourself into the ground and your family paid the price?” Ask my boys if I have been a perfect father. Ask anyone in this church if I am a perfect pastor. Ask my friends if I have been a perfect friend. For every time I want to say, “I’m awesome!” someone around me is thinking, “Except when you’re not.” What I have to say (if I look at myself honestly) is only this: “Don’t look at me. Look at Christ in me. He’s the hope of glory.”
The fact that Christ steps in and raises us up should bring about an incredible amount of humility.
2. This should change how we view our value and worth. If you are the product of God’s hand - if God is raising you up so you can bring good into the world in a way that will be empowered by Christ working in you - then you should never say, “I guess I deserve to be mistreated. I guess I deserve to be belittled. I don’t matter. My life is nothing. Everybody else is cool and doing great things and I’m just stuck with my personality or looks or circumstances.” If that’s the voice in your head, I promise you it’s not the voice of Christ. The voice of Christ says, “Just bring what you’ve got. I’ve got this. It’s my job to take what you as you are and craft you into something that will be for your good and my glory.”
Now, God will ask us to step up. It is often through the process of walking (and stumbling, falling, and getting back up) that Christ does this work in us. But we “run the race” only because Christ has shown us the track, and strengthened our legs, and given us the right kind of shoes, and given us a prize on which to fix our eyes. We are called to run the race, but the glory for the ground we cover belongs to Christ alone.
3. This should change how we treat others. This is why we should never treat others in a way that shames them, or belittles or mocks them. We don’t brag about our spiritual exploits to other people. We don’t take advantage of people, or hurt them with our words, our attitudes, or our hands. We are, after all, created for “good works.”
That’s not a reference to the Old Testament Law – it’s a term that simply means we are to do good to others as representatives of Christ’s presence on the earth. Certainly that will include walking in the path of life that God has shown us, but it goes beyond just that. We look for opportunities to do good. We look for opportunities to affirm in those around us that they matter, and love them as Christ would love them.
If heaven is writing poetry on the lives of my wife and children, who am I to step in and deface the work of Christ? Whenever my words or my attitude send them a message that they are failures, or that they have to earn my love or pride, or that they are an annoyance, I deface the work of Christ. Every time I give my wife a look that tells her without words that I am annoyed or think she just doesn’t get it, I step in and write shame and anger into the poetry of heaven. I need to model grace and speak words of life to my family and friends. I need to honor and not shame them, to speak truth but always with grace, to affirm their gifts and talents, and to display the compelling nature of Christ through my words and actions.
We often wonder if God has a plan for our lives. Yes. He wants to raise us up. His plan is that we become a testimony to the incredible riches of His grace as He makes us into something beautiful.
QUESTIONS FOR DEVOTIONS OR DISCUSSION
- What spiritual force compels us to choose sin? (1-2)
- What characterizes people going the wrong direction? (v.3)
- What has God done to get us on the right road? (v. 4-6)
- What does God want to accomplish by this? (v. 7)
- What is the means of our salvation? (v. 8-9)
- Why did God save us? (v. 10)
- What has being “raised up” looked like in your life?
- Of the three implications listed (humility, value and worth, the treatment of others), which is the most challenging for you? Why?
- Grace is a gift; we can’t boast about receiving it! Does this mean there is nothing about our walk with Christ that is up to us?
Prayer: Pray that you and those around you can do more than know that we are raised with Christ. Pray that we can all experience what it means to experience the reality of being “raised up” in our humility, our sense of value, and our relationships with others.
(Thanks to N.T. Wright’s Ephesians: Studies for Individuals and Groups for some of these questions)