I will be speaking at a church in one of the labour camps Friday afternoon. My plan is to explain what Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is all about and why it is worth taking the trouble to read it. I will stress the fact that Ephesians is a straightforward “letter”, written for a straightforward purpose, with a straightforward story to tell, not a timeless treatise on Christian theology or a compendium of proof texts for the benefit of preachers.
But what is the argument or “story” of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians? Of course, since the Protestant Reformation rashly put scripture in the hands of ordinary lay believers, everyone has been entitled to make of the text what he or she wills; and everyone has an opinion on whether that’s a good thing or not. For what it’s worth, here’s my narrative-historical reading of it.
1:3-12 Paul speaks, in the first place, on behalf of redeemed Israel. This is the “we” and “us” of the opening section—that community of Jews which has been chosen “for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ”, who were “the first to hope in Christ”. This community has received the insight that at this critical moment in the story of the people of God all things—”things in heaven and things on earth”—are being united in Christ.
1:13-14 The saints in Ephesus have also come to believe this story about the redemption of Israel through Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit as an experiential guarantee that they too will share in the same “inheritance”. Paul gives little indication here of what this inheritance will consist of or when it will be acquired, but I suggest that it needs to be understood historically, not merely spiritually. At the parousia Christ will be revealed to the whole Greek-Roman oikoumenē, which is the moment when these suffering communities of eschatological transformation will at last inherit the world and—for better or for worse—set about Christianizing the empire (cf. Rom. 4:13).
1:15-23 So Paul prays that these latecomers to the community of redeemed Israel will grow in their understanding of the hope to which they have been called and of the power that is available to them as they make the difficult journey towards the inheritance of the world. This is the same power by which God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him final authority over all things—”all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come”—for the sake of the church. Here we have again the apocalyptic story about Jesus: he has been made Lord not until the parousia only, at the end of the current age, but beyond the parousia, in the age or ages to come.
2:1-22 Paul then explains what has been involved in their change of political-religious allegiance. They were formerly “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind”, subject to the judgment that was coming on the pagan world; but they have been “saved” by grace, through believing the good news about what God is doing in this period of eschatological transition; and these saved Gentiles will be a concrete sign of God’s goodness towards the nations throughout the coming ages. They were once alienated from the “commonwealth of Israel”, but Jesus’ death put an end to the “dividing wall” imposed by the Jewish Law, so they are now “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God”—a renewed household established on the specific revelation given to the apostles and prophets that the “Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:5-6).
3:1-20 This is the extraordinary idea that Paul is trying to communicate here. He calls it a “mystery”. Israel according to the Law—circumcised Israel—no longer had a monopoly on knowledge of the creator. So again he prays that these Ephesian believers would be able to grasp the full significance of what has happened to them and of what the future holds.
4:1-16 But they also have to understand that this new “calling” necessitates a new way of life, and in the second half of the Letter Paul sets out what this means in three areas. First, if the Ephesians are to be the community of eschatological transformation that they are called to be, they will have to work hard to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. Gifts have been given to the church so that it may build itself up towards a Christ-like maturity.
4:17-5:21 Secondly, they have left the world of the Gentiles, so they must no longer behave “as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds”. They must put off the old person, be “renewed in the spirit of your minds”, and put on the new person, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”. The wrath of God is about to come on the world of the “sons of disobedience”. The unrighteous will have no inheritance in the coming “kingdom of Christ and God”. They have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works” and they have to make sure that they do them.
5:22-6:9 Thirdly, as late-coming members of the household of God these Gentiles need to learn how to do household relations differently. The hierarchical structures that prevailed in the ancient Mediterranean world easily lent themselves to abuse: husbands treated their wives as chattels, women despised their overbearing husbands; fathers provoked their children, who in turn showed little respect for their parents; slaves made a show of pleasing their masters, who for their part threatened their slaves with violence. Paul insists that in Christ there is a better way of living within these household structures.
6:10-20 Finally, we are not allowed to forget the eschatological context. Before they inherit the world, the saints in Ephesus are likely to face an “evil day”, a day of battle (cf. Rom. 13:11-12), a day of persecution, when they will need to put on the “whole armour of God” if they are to survive. Why? Because they “do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”.
So what do the labourers of Sonapur need to get out of this? First, a desire to grasp the riches that are theirs in Christ, who has been made Lord over all powers and authorities, including the powers and authorities that directly affect their lives here. Secondly, a commitment to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace as in different ways they take the initiative to build themselves up. Thirdly, a willingness to learn a new way of living, under less than favourable conditions, in keeping with their status as members of the household of God.