The message of Ephesians

Read time: 6 minutes

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.

I like your view.  The question that is left unanswered, however, is “Once the parousia comes, what changes and what remains the same?”  Obviously, Jesus continues to rule in the new age — you made that point.  But what of these assemblies?  Are they to remain, or are the people to go and fill the new earth and multiply?

@Mike Gantt:

Well, if we suppose that the parousia was the vindication of the early suffering churches and the victory of Christ over the gods of the pagan world, then history has answered that question for us. The church set about the task of Christianizing the empire and then, after some centuries, extending the reach of European Christendom across the globe. That was how the church continued the story of Ephesians, rightly or wrongly—and I don’t think it was quite as wrong as people tend to think these days.

But what about us, now, after the expansion and contraction of Western Christendom—and the continuing expansion of global Christianity? Where does this ongoing story leave us? I think that we are what we have always been—a people called by the creator God to witness to the possibility of new creation, new humanity, in the midst of, and in the eyes of, the nations and cultures of the world.

Daniel | Wed, 04/25/2012 - 20:53 | Permalink

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

Not the point of your post, I realize, but this was an interesting comment. It strikes me that this move by the Reformers was a lot like the introduction of more democratic forms of government: Blessings in the form of real accountability for the leadership, but at the cost of putting that accountability into the hands of people who often don’t know what they’re talking about. On the whole, better than the alternative, but with real liabilities that Protestants probably ought to acknowledge and address more forthrightly.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 04/27/2012 - 05:49 | Permalink

I was surprised at how little I found to be objectionable in this summary of the letter, considering my persistent questioning of your position, Andrew, which I continue to feel has problems as yet unaddressed by yourself and most contributors to the site. (Addressing problems is not, of course, the same as wholesale dismissal).

I did wonder to what extent Paul at all highlights his own distinct on-going identity as an Israelite in the letter, as you suggest he does, and therefore to what extent he is actually, in the letter, inviting Gentiles to identify themselves with the God of a Jewish apocalyptic narrative according to your narrative-historical understanding of things. He is, after all, at pains to highlight the “one new man” whose identity is neither Gentile nor Jewish. His own identity is now very far from being Jewish — Ephesians 2:15, Galatians 3:28, Philippians 3:4-9. Or am I misreading you here?

I also found myself asking what is the consistent, repeated focus of the letter? This has to be Christ, and in particular, being found “in Christ”, and the litany of privileges which that affords — to Jew and Gentile alike. The words “Christ”, “in Christ”, “in him” and repeated reference to him are the most frequently repeated words and phrases in the first chapter alone. It’s just a strange feature of the historicist approach (said without any negative connotation), that this focus seems to become somewhat marginalised, and in your summary, drops out almost entirely. Shouldn’t the repeated emphasis of the focus be highlighted in a summary? For me, it’s the key to the letter, with the corollary: how do I get “in” this person in order to enjoy these privileges?

I hope you will not take offence at this comment, and I do wish you well for this afternoon, at the labour camp — about which I would be interested to hear more. Whether it’s some kind of penal camp or not, I’m sure the words of Matthew 25:35-36 will be lived out in you through the visit.

@peter wilkinson:

The apocalyptic narrative is an essentially Jewish narrative, but it is a narrative about how Israel’s God claims the pagan world—and ultimately the whole world—for himself. This is Psalm 2 or Isaiah 45 or Daniel 7, not to mention a whole load of Jewish apocalyptic stuff.

I wouldn’t insist that the distinction between “we” and “you” in chapter 1 is a shift from Jewish to Gentile, but it’s hard to understand why he would mark out a group who “first” hoped in Christ otherwise in a Letter in which he so forcefully puts forward his claim to be an apostle to the Gentiles.

I don’t think my narrative-historical approach makes the “in Christ” theme unimportant. In fact, the phrase “in Christ” occurs six times in my short summary (though not always with the same meaning), which is actually about 50% more frequent than in the Letter itself.

The issue is what we mean by “in Christ”. I would argue that for the churches to be “in Christ” meant that they were participating in the apocalyptic narrative anticipated in his death, resurrection and coming parousia. For most people today it is a non-apocalyptic, purely relational category.

The time at the labour camp went very well. We had some antics with some of the guys standing up to represent the various “bodies” that appear in Ephesians, but we got through the whole Letter. Then we prayed for and laid hands on the sick. Things have improved, but construction workers here still have a hard time of it.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks. I’m just up to p.20 of Tom Wright’s “How God became King” — which doesn’t sound too promising from your point of view, and still less from the point of view of the Unitarian contributors to the site! However, I thought you’d be heartened by the sentence where Wright has been complaining, as he does elsewhere, that the creeds reflect one way of seeing Jesus, and the content of the gospels another: “The gospels were all about God becoming king, but the creeds focused on Jesu becoming God”.

Earlier, Wright criticises the traditional way of interpreting things: “It is as though a young man spent all his time proving that he really was his father’s son, and left no time or energy for working with his father in the family business — which would, actually, be one of the better ways of demonstrating the family likeness.”

I thought this was a good way of putting it, though from my point of view (and Wright’s), maybe not yours, the family likeness is indeed that Jesus is YHWH.

A section on Bultmann follows the opening focus on the “missing middle” in the church’s interpretation of the gospels, in which Bultmann is also said to be buying into the same mistake that the church has made: that “the missing middle”, the historical life of Jesus on earth, is of limited importance for ‘the gospel’ itself, and for Bultmann, no importance. Rather, for Bultmann, the church’s beliefs about Jesus were projected onto a mythical canvas of his life, and these were of importance, if they could be found.

The book is not just a populist restatement of what Wright has said elsewhere, but seems to be a more cohesive drawing together of themes around the importance of the four gospels in Jesus’s mission to renew creation.

You can see where you would want to limit some of the things Wright asserts, but it’s getting back to the narrative in a useful way. Funnily enough, it complements something very different which I am doing at the moment: the Bethel ‘Leader Programme’, in which Bill Johnson’s annoyingly anti-theological stance at the same time puts into practice precisely the same theme: God is King and his reign is expressed by interventions of his royal power in our lives. This would chime with praying for healing at construction workers’ camps and wherever else there is the opportunity.