The Only Thing That Lasts
A sermon on Ephesians 1:13-14 by Coty Pinckney, preached at Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 5/25/97
Tomorrow we celebrate Memorial Day. This holiday had its beginnings 135 years ago during the War Between the States, when southern women placed flowers on the graves of both northern and southern soldiers. Will you join me in prayer, as we remember this event?
O Lord and Father, we thank you for this country, the United States of America; this country which, for all its faults, has stood as a symbol of freedom and liberty. Thank you for the healing you brought to this land after the terrible crisis it faced 135 years ago. Thank you that now, we whose ancestors fought each other can worship together, that we whose ancestors were slaves and masters can praise you together. In your mercy and by the power of Jesus' blood may you continue to heal our land of its remaining ethnic and racial hatred. Thank you for those who died as soldiers on both sides, for their willingness to die so that others might benefit. May we learn from them the meaning of offering ourselves as a sacrifice to you. We know the cause you give us, of being your soldiers, is yet greater and nobler -- and just as demanding of us -- as their causes. Gird us, Lord, help us to understand the need to be fully devoted to you, to be willing to sacrifice our own comforts and desires so that we might be your faithful soldiers, willing to give our all for you. Amen.
When you think of the War Between the States, what images come to your mind? For many Americans, and especially for those of us from the South, the images from the classic film Gone with the Wind are indelibly impressed in our minds. Many of you know the story of Scarlett O'Hara, who begins as a young coquette, thoughtless of anything other than her beauty. Her character develops throughout the film, but a key scene occurs only a few minutes into the movie. Scarlett, spurned by only one man, but spurned by the one she most wants to attract, is depressed. She and her father walk out at sunset, looking over their plantation, Tara. He draws her attention to the beauty of the land, and she says all this means nothing to her. He replies:
"Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, that Tara - that land doesn't mean anything to you? Why, land's the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it's the only thing that lasts."
Scarlett replies, "Oh, Pa. You talk like an Irishman."
"It's proud I am that I'm Irish, and don't you be forgetting, Missy, that you're half-Irish, too. And, to anyone with a drop of Irish blood in them; why, the land they live on is like their mother. Oh, but there, there now, you're just a child. It'll come to you, this love of the land. There's no getting away from it if you're Irish."
At which point the camera zooms out; Scarlett and her father are silhouetted against the red sunset; Tara's theme fills the theater and, if you're from the South, tears well up in your eyes for the first of many times in the movie.
But I want to pick up on Gerald O'Hara's words: "The only thing that lasts." What lasts? What is the only thing that truly lasts? In our studies in Ephesians, we have come to the end of this majestic sentence that praises God for the spiritual blessings he has given to us, to those who have faith. Paul tells us that we are chosen, predestined to adoption as sons, to being God's heirs; that we are redeemed, forgiven by God, bought by God. Furthermore, God has revealed to us the future direction of the universe: All will be summed up in Christ, and we will play a role in that summing up. We have discussed these blessings in the last several weeks.
At this point, there are two logical questions to ask:
Paul answers: You heard the word of truth, you believed, and you were sealed with the Holy Spirit as a pledge, a down payment guaranteeing your redemption and inheritance. Paul is saying, right now you have the Spirit, your eternal life begins now. Furthermore, he says this is the only thing that lasts!
So let's look at these in more detail: hearing, believing, sealing
Consider the first part of verse 13:
13 In him, you also [have obtained an inheritance], after hearing the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.
Up to this point Paul has been detailing our spiritual blessings from God's perspective on time: God chose us before the foundation of the world, God has a plan for the summing up of all things in Christ. Now, Paul shifts to our perspective. He tells us, "Remember, you did hear the message; there was a time when you heard."
What did we hear? He tell us:
the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.
Note that it is not just any word that we have heard, but the word of truth. Paul is not saying we heard something that we thought was meaningful, or that we listened to some good advice that made a difference in our lives; he is saying that we heard God's good news, God's word, God's way of salvation. This is the truth that we have heard.
Having heard this word of truth, how must we respond?
Verse 13 continues:
In him, you also [have obtained an inheritance], after hearing the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed . . .
We respond by believing, by having faith. We can hear, but that's not enough; there's no impact from hearing only. Similarly, there is no impact from believing if we believe in something other than the word of truth. Now, we see this all the time. People have:
All these will fail us. Faith that is not grounded in the word of truth is, in the end, worthless.
Today there are many people who argue that what we believe doesn't matter. They will say, "Doctrine doesn't really matter; just be sincere. Find something that makes your life meaningful, no matter what. Find what feels good, what gives you a thrill, and believe in that."
You see the difference between the approach of the world today and Paul's approach? The world says, "Look at your life's experiences, and then pick something that you would like to believe in." Paul is saying, "You heard the word of truth -- the only word of truth. Believe in that!"
Don't listen to today's blind guides. Paul tells us that the only thing that lasts is faith in the revealed word of God. That is why in this church we put strong emphasis on preaching and teaching the Bible, so that you might hear the Word of Truth, and consequently believe in it. We try to illustrate the truths of God's word by relating our experiences, but we don't use subjective experiences as the basis for our teaching; we always apply the Word to our lives, but we start with the Word, we don't start with our life's experiences.
Later in his life, Paul will write this to a young pastor:
Preach the Word! In season and out of season(that is, whether it's popular or not, whether people want to hear it or not), reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. (2 Timothy 4:2-3a)
Pastors are to preach the Word so that you might hear and believe. God forbid that we preach and teach anything but the Word of truth.
After hearing and believing, what happens?
Let's continue reading in verses 13 and 14 of Ephesians 1:
Having believed, you were sealed in him with the promised Holy Spirit, who is given as a downpayment of our inheritance, until the redemption of those who are God's possession, to the praise of his glory.
After hearing and believing we are sealed in Christ with the Holy Spirit. Now, this concept of sealing has been the source of considerable conflict. Let's note exactly what the text says about this sealing by asking a series of questions. First:
Who is Sealed?
Paul is perfectly clear here: "having believed, you were sealed." He doesn't say, "having believed, some of you were sealed," or "having believed and having had some additional experience, you were sealed." He simply says, "having believed, you were sealed." Paul is saying that every person who believes in the word of truth is sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.
Who does the Sealing?
The verb is passive voice; the person doing the acting is not named in this verse. But the context makes clear that it is God the Father who seals us. This entire 12-verse sentence consists of God the Father's blessings given to us, and sealing is one of those.
In Whom are we Sealed?
A literal rendering of this section could read:
IN HIM, you also have obtained an inheritance, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, IN HIM having believed you were sealed
The words "in Him" are in the position of emphasis, twice. We obtain our inheritance in Christ, we believe in Christ, and we are sealed in Christ. It is because of our relationship to Christ, because we are in Him, because we are His body that God seals us.
With Whom are we Sealed?
We are sealed with "the promised Holy Spirit." Note the way all three members of the Trinity work together: God does the sealing, He seals us in Christ, with the Holy Spirit.
To What End? What is the Purpose of our Being Sealed?
Let's keep reading:
Having believed, you were sealed in him with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is given as a downpayment of our inheritance, until the redemption of those who are God's possession, to the praise of his glory.
Now, verse 14 refers back to earlier verses in this passage. Paul tells us in verse 11 that we have obtained an inheritance, and in verse 7 that we have redemption through Christ's blood. Remember, those earlier verses view time from God's perspective: we already have the inheritance, we are already redeemed. Christ has died once and for all; Christ is glorified and sits at the Father's right hand; we are in Christ.
But from our perspective, caught in time, we do not yet have the complete inheritance, nor does it appear that we are fully redeemed. The New Testament is clear on this in other places: now we see "but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12);" "Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is (1 John 3:2)." Paul writes in Philippians 1, "For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain," because he knows his complete redemption awaits the resurrection.
So, from our perspective, our complete redemption and inheritance are yet future, even though God has already accomplished all the work necessary for those to come about. God, then, seals us with the Holy Spirit as a downpayment, a pledge, a deposit, guaranteeing that the final, complete redemption will take place.
The Greek word translated "downpayment" is today used for "wedding ring." And the idea is similar. The wedding ring is a symbol of my future faithfulness to my wife. The Holy Spirit is God's pledge to us of our future redemption.
What does Sealing Mean?
In Paul's day, important letters would be signed by the sender, and then closed. The sender would melt wax and drip it over the opening, then press a seal into the hot wax. This served to show who the sender was, and that no one had tampered with the contents while it was in transit.
So the seal ensures that we are genuine. It marks us as belonging to God. And it provides protection from those that would tamper with us. This is the work of the Holy Spirit within us. He provides us with assurance, the knowledge that we are not our own, but bought with a price. When Satan assaults us, questioning who we are, suggesting that God can never forgive our degree of sinfulness, the Holy Spirit is there, our pledge, our wedding ring, guaranteeing that we belong to God.
Furthermore, the Spirit produces fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, as Paul writes in Galatians 5. And these serve not only to give us a foretaste of eternal life; these serve not only to provide us assurance that we truly belong to God; but these serve also to show others the TRUTH! We heard the truth; we believed; we were sealed; and as a result of that sealing we bear witness to the truth!
Jesus says, "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples." By what? How will men know that we are Jesus' disciples? "If you have love one for another." And love is the fruit of the Spirit, the result of our being sealed in Christ with the Holy Spirit.
Ray Stedman puts it this way:
As that joy and love and peace begin to flow out through you and overspill into the lives of others and you begin to shine forth in love when you don't feel like loving, in joy when your circumstances are unhappy, in peace when everything around you is troubled, it is a witness, an unmistakable mark to the world around, that you belong to God. There is something about you that is different. You have the mark of his ownership upon you.
You see the importance of this? This is reality: The Holy Spirit is within us, Christ is in us, giving us the certain hope of glory. But that glory, that eternal life begins today. Christianity does not offer pie in the sky when you die, as some skeptics say, but God offers to all who believe in the word of truth the Holy Spirit of promise, so that we can know today that we are God's possession, and so that others may know that God's word is the word of truth.
Love. Joy. Peace. Does your life reflect this fruit of the Spirit? Peter puts it this way:
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy (1Peter 1:8)
Do you know this joy? Joy that is not the result of your circumstances but in spite of them? Believe in the word of truth, and you will be sealed.
So what is the only thing that lasts? Is Scarlett's father right, is land the only thing that lasts? By the end of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett has lost much of her beauty, has lost her child, has lost three husbands and has discovered that she was in love with an illusion of another man, not the man himself. Almost everything that she thought was important, she has lost. But she still has Tara, the land; she remembers her father's words, and returns to that which is so important to her.
But her land, too, Scarlett will lose upon her death. And at some time -- maybe tonight -- God will bring the heavens and the earth that we know to an end. The Bible says he will roll up the sky like a garment; the land too, according to God's revelation, will disappear. As Peter says,
the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. (2 Peter 3:10)
What will last then? Will the political powers of this day, the great democracies, the dictatorships, the military powers? Will they last? Will the wealthy, the successful businessmen, the Fortune 500 companies, will they last? Will the great institutions of learning, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Williams -- will these institutions survive the great and terrible day of the Lord?
God will destroy this entire, sin-filled world, and will create a new heavens, a new earth, in which there will be no more sorrow, no more pain, no more crying, and Jesus himself will wipe all tears from our eyes. Justice will be done; all sin will be paid for.
What will last then?
God's word to you today is this: If you believe in this word of truth,
If you are not a Christian, God is willing to say all this to you. You have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: Believe! Believe, and you will be sealed, you will have the Holy Spirit of promise! You will be adopted as God's son, His heir, you will be part of His own treasured possession! David says, "A broken and contrite heart, O Lord, you will not despise."
If you are a Christian, remind yourself of what lasts -- and what doesn't last. Tell yourself every morning:
Praise God for his indescribable gift!
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 5/25/97. The questions posed in the conclusion about what will last are paraphrased from Ray Stedman's sermon on this passage, found at thePBC web site.
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