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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Ephesians

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( 1:1–2 ) Greeting

It is typical of Paul that he adapts the normal letter address, ‘X to Y, greeting’ (Gk.) or ‘peace’ (Jewish). He emphasizes his apostleship (cf. 2 Cor 1:1; Col 1:1 ). He stresses the status of the recipients: they have been set apart for God (‘saints’) (cf. e.g. Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1 ) and live by trust in God (‘faithful’) (as in Col 1:2 ). He transforms the Greek greeting (chairein) into the rich Christian term ‘grace’ (charis), and combines it with the equally rich Jewish concept of peace, wishing them the continued experience of God's generous favour (‘grace’) and all that makes for communal well-being (‘peace’). On ‘in Ephesus’ see EPH. A.I.

The Great Prayer and Meditation ( 1:3–3:21 )

( 1:3–14 ) The Blessing of God

This is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible. It is unlike anything else in the Pauline letters (the nearest parallel is 2 Cor 1:3–11 ). In the Greek it can be punctuated as a single sentence. The repetition of key words, the piling up of phrases, and the circling round and steady enrichment of the central theme gives it a depth and resonance unsurpassed in Christian praise. It is a word to return to, to rest upon, to rejoice in, and not least, to enjoy. It should have been put to great music long before now.

It begins by sketching in the circle of blessing (v. 3 ). That circle starts with God. The word for ‘blessed’ (eulogētos) here is used only of God in the NT (e.g. Mk 14:61; Rom 1:25 ); it indicates that nothing more wonderful can be imagined or spoken of than God. Characteristic of this blessedness is that it reaches out to embrace God's human creatures (‘with every spiritual blessing’). The circle is complete when those thus blessed affirm its source and resource in God.

This blessing is four-dimensional. It reaches from the beginning of time: chosen ‘before the foundation of the world’ (v. 4 ); predestined in love (v. 5; cf. Rom 8:29–30 ); the divine mystery (v. 9 ), that is, God's original but hidden purpose, now revealed (see 3:3–6 ); predestined and appointed (v. 11 ). And it reaches to the end of time: a plan for the fullness of time (God's appointed hour) to sum up everything in Christ (v. 10; see 1:20–3 ); the Spirit as the guarantee of the inheritance and the final redemption of God's own possession (v. 14 ). Here again the stress is on God's overarching purpose in control from the first—his good pleasure and will (vv. 5, 9 ), ‘according to [his] purpose … according to his counsel and will’ (v. 11 ).

Spatial imagery is also prominent. The blessings in which believers already share are those ‘in the heavenly places’ (v. 3 ), where the symbolism of higher (heavens above earth) denotes greater bliss in a way more problematic for modern readers (see also 6:12 ). The final union will embrace everything in the heavens and in the earth (v. 10 ). Most striking of all, however, is the repeated emphasis on the location and means of this blessing as ‘in him (Christ)’, a phrase which occurs no less than ten times (also ‘through Jesus Christ’—v. 5 ).

The conviction is clear: that the whole of God's purpose from the beginning focuses in and through Christ (vv. 4, 9, 11–12 ); that Jesus and his death were the means by which personal liberation (redemption) and the forgiveness for wrongs done had been genuinely experienced (v. 7 ); that Jesus himself is the ‘place’ in which the blessings of heaven and the Spirit are to be known in the here and now, so that the very term ‘Christian’ denotes a life (and death) bound up with his (vv. 3, 5, 13–14 ); and, not least, that Christ in a real sense constitutes the hope for the world and final reconciliation, its climax and summation point (vv. 9–10 ).

The blessings themselves are indicated in a series of evocative phrases: ‘holy and blameless before him in love’ (v. 4 ); adoption as God's children (cf. Gal 4:5–7 ), formerly estranged (v. 5 ); ‘redemption’, the image of the costly liberation of slave or captive (cf. Rom 3:24; 1 Cor 6:19–20 ), and the experience of forgiveness for conscience-nagging wrongs committed (v. 7; cf. Col 1:14 ); knowledge and sense of personal involvement in God's purpose (v. 9 ); an awareness of being chosen by God (v. 11 ); a conviction as to the truth of the gospel and of the ‘salvation’ (wholeness) it brings (v. 13; cf. 1 Thess 1:5 ); and the experience of being marked out by the Spirit as belonging to God (the function of a ‘seal’)—the reference will be to the impact made by the Spirit (as e.g. in Rom 5:5; 1 Cor 6:9–11 ), rather than to baptism—and of the assurance the Spirit brings (cf. Rom 8:14–16 ), as being the first instalment and guarantee of the complete redemption/liberation still to come (vv. 13–14; cf. Rom 8:23; 2 Cor 1:21–2 ).

But the blessing is primarily directed to God. He is the subject of the main active verbs (‘blessed, chose, destined …’). His love embraces the trustful in the sonship of the Beloved (vv. 4–6; cf. Rom 8:15–17, 29 ). It is his grace (the same word as in v. 2 ), the same outpouring of divine generosity which is the fountainhead of all human wellbeing (‘his grace with which he has engraced us … in accordance with the riches of his grace which he has lavished upon us’, vv. 6–8 , my tr.). He ‘accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will’ (v. 11 ). And all is ‘to the praise of his glory’ (vv. 6, 12, 14 )—human bliss from beginning to end dependent on human recognition that God is the be-all and end-all.

It is important to note how characteristically Jewish is the language and thought. To begin a prayer to God with the evocation of his blessedness is distinctively Jewish (e.g. Ps 41:13; 72:18–19 ; the great Jewish prayer, the Eighteen Benedictions, ‘Blessed are you, O Lord …’, go back to Jesus' time). God's unconditional choice (v. 4 ) was fundamental to Israel's self-understanding (e.g. Deut 7:6–8 ). ‘The Beloved’ (v. 6 ) was a favourite name for Israel (e.g. Deut 33:12; Isa 5:1 ). The time perspective of the benediction is distinctive of Jewish apocalypses—the assurance that God's mysterious purpose is working towards its climax despite all human failure and catastrophe (vv. 9–10 ; cf. e.g. Dan 2:21; Mk 1:15 ); the Qumran community shared a similar conviction that the hidden mysteries had been revealed to them ( EPH 3:1–13 ). And not least, there is the writer's sense that he and his readers (Gentiles included) had been embraced within the divine purpose which began with and worked through Israel: the purpose was that they should be numbered with the ‘saints’, the ones set apart to God (a title for Israel—e.g. Ps 16:3; 34:9 ), and without blemish, like Israel's sacrifices (v. 4 ; cf. e.g. Lev 1:3, 10; Ps 15:2 ); they had been appointed (lit. given a share) in Israel's ‘inheritance’ (vv. 11, 14 ), two words which would have evoked for any Jewish reader thought of the land, seed, and blessing promised to Abraham (cf. Gen 12:2–3; Deut 32:9; Jer 10:16 ); they were God's ‘possession’ (cf. Ex 19:5; Deut 14:2 ).

The difference is indicated, however, in the repeated ‘in him’. This is the amazing feature of the benediction—the confidence and conviction that Jesus has been and is the key to unlock the mystery of God's purpose and to bring it into effect, for Gentile as well as Jew. Christianity today, long heir of elaborate creeds and dogmas regarding Christ, can scarcely appreciate what astounding claims were being made—that one who had lived only a generation or so earlier could thus unfold and embody the wonder of God's grace. So we find it equally hard to appreciate the impact which Jesus and then the message about Jesus must have made upon such hearers in the ancient Mediterranean world. It was a conviction which was not merely intellectual: the believing was matched by an experience of forgiveness, of being engraced, and of the Spirit beginning the process of reclamation of human life and community for God (vv. 7–8, 13–14 ). But evidently the gospel thus focused on Jesus made such sense of reality, of the whole complex of time and space, of cosmos and history, that he could be thus seen at the centre of both cosmos and history, as the one who explained the all, and always ‘to the praise of God's glory’.

( 1:15–23 ) Paul's Prayer

It was conventional in ancient letters to add a thanksgiving and prayer on behalf of those to whom the letter was sent (in Paul cf. particularly Rom 1:8–15; 1 Cor 1:4–9; Col 1:3–8 ). The opening words here (vv. 15–16 ) are typical of Paul and may indeed be modelled on Philem 4–5 and Col 1:3–4 . The thanksgiving had in view particularly the two-sidedness of the readers' new relationships—faith in the Lord Jesus and love for all the saints (the ‘all’ might need some emphasis). Characteristic of Paul too was the habit of regular ‘mention’ of his converts in his prayers (Rom 1:9; Phil 1:3; 1 Thess 1:2 ).

But the prayer which follows surpasses anything else in Paul's letters, as rich as the preceding blessing and stretching the expectation of hope and the imagination of faith still further.

It is directed to God (not to Christ). He indeed is described as ‘the God of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v. 17 ), with the recognition that Jesus, even in the fullness of his exalted Lordship, still acknowledges God as his God (cf. 1 Cor 15:24–8 ). This Christian faith, including the mind-blowing Christology of 1:22–3 , is still monotheistic through and through. It is God who has done all the great work of salvation in Christ (vv. 19–23 ) and in whom hope is focused (vv. 17–18 ). He is ‘the Father of glory’ (v. 17; cf. Acts 7:2; Rom 6:4 ); the phrase should not be reduced to ‘glorious Father’ but should be allowed to resonate with all the overtones of God as the progenitor of all that is glorious and splendid (including v. 18 ). The richness of this divine resource is a repeated theme (vv. 7, 18–19; 2:4, 7; 3:8, 16 ).

The intercession falls into two parts. First for knowledge (vv. 17–19 ), knowledge being fundamental to well-being. The very diversity of the language (wisdom, revelation, knowledge, illumination) is a reminder that there are different kinds of knowledge. Here most in view is the knowledge which comes through an experience of revelation, of eyes being opened, and through the experience of personal relationship with God (‘the eyes of your heart enlightened’ is a wonderfully evocative phrase). When knowledge is reduced to knowledge of facts or of information which can be humanly discovered it will always be deficient for living (cf. Col. 1:9–11 ). Only in its richer form, dependent on inspiration from on high, does knowledge become wisdom (the echo of Isa 11:2 will be deliberate).

Here, however, the thought is directed more to the future: ‘the hope to which he [God] has called you’ (v. 18 ), a ‘calling’ (both invitation and summons) elaborated in the talk of the rich inheritance to be shared with the saints (see v. 14 ). When hope is based on such knowledge it can indeed be firm and confident. As in Col 1:4–5 , so here, hope is not far from faith and love (cf. 1 Cor 13:13 ).

The second part (vv. 20–3 ) reflects further on the working of this great might of God: hope can be confident (v. 18 ) because the power at work in human experience (v. 19 ) is the same power which raised up Christ from the dead and exalted him as God's ‘right-hand man’. The language was already credal (e.g. Acts 3:15; 13:30; Rom 10:9; 1 Thess 1:10 ) and the use of Ps 110:1 as a way of understanding what had happened to the risen Christ was well-established (e.g. Acts 2:34–5; Rom 8:34; 1 Pet 3:22 ). But it is here elaborated in an exceptional way.

The thought that Christ was thus set ‘in the heavenly places’ is peculiar to Ephesians ( 1:3, 20; 2:6 ). But the further thought that he was already dominant over all powers, both present and future, takes up Ps 110:1 combined with Ps 8:6 ( 1:20–2 ; a combination we find also in 1 Cor 15:25–7 and Heb 1:12–2:8 ). The combination is powerful since it links the idea of Jesus as the man/son of man who fulfils God's purpose for humanity as the climax of creation (Ps 8:4–6; cf. Heb 2:6–9 ) with that of Jesus as David's greater son given a share in God's sovereign rule (Ps 110:1; cf. Mk 12:35–7 ). The conviction obviously carried with it a psychological liberation from fear of the nameless forces which shape human existence (see 2:2 and 6:10–20 ). What a one was this Jesus that the note struck by his life, death, and resurrection should have had such continuing resonance and deepening reverberations in the subsequent decades.

If that was a challenging enough linkage, the final clauses (vv. 22–3 ) almost baffle comprehension (the major commentaries spend several pages discussing them). The climax of what God did ‘in Christ’ (v. 20 ) was to give him as ‘head over all things for the church, which is his body’ (vv. 22–3 ). The metaphor of the church as Christ's body goes back to 1 Cor 12 and Rom 12:4–8 , and will later be elaborated with the idea of Christ as the head of the body ( 4:15–16 ). But here the thought is of Christ as head of all reality, given by God to or for the church (cf. Col 1:17–18 ). That would be a difficult enough thought, though ‘head’ can mean both ‘ruler’ and ‘source’ (fountainhead), and so Christ could be portrayed as embodying or epitomizing the rationale and pattern of divine creation. ‘Given to/for the church’ could then mean simply(!) that the church, here the universal church, had, through its faith in Christ and the God who worked through Christ, been given the key to understanding reality and enabled to rise above all that threatened human and social life.

The chief problem is the final clause, what it means and how it relates to what has gone before—‘the fullness of him who fills all in all’. Does it refer to Christ or to the church? Does it draw on ideas familiar from later Gnostic texts—Christ as a kind of cosmic being which comprises the totality of sentient reality? The answer is probably that the writer has been carried away by his language and imagery and is playing on the familiar Jewish thought of God or God's Spirit as filling the cosmos (Jer 23:24; Wis 1:7; cf. Ps 139:7 ). Christ now embodies that fullness (cf. Col 1:19; 2:9 ). And the church, his body, is (or should be!) the place where God's presence in and purpose for creation comes to its clearest expression. Would that it were so!

( 2:1–10 ) A Reminder of What God Has Already Done in Them

This is one of the most forceful statements in the Bible regarding the human condition apart from God's grace and the way in which that grace operates for salvation.

The human condition apart from grace is described in vv. 1–3 in a series of vivid clauses; note the balance between a certain givenness of human character, social conditioning, and individual responsibility. (1) They had been ‘dead through trespasses and sins’ (vv. 1, 5; cf. Col 2:13 ). ‘Death’ is but one metaphor among many; others include ‘weak’ and ‘enemies’ (Rom 5:6, 10 ; cf. EPH 2:14–16 ). And the experience of grace (in conversion) can itself be likened to a dying (Rom 6:5–11 ). But a life enmeshed in its breaches of the moral code (transgressions) and repeated failings (sins) can well be likened to a state of death, where promptings of divine grace and love evoke no real response (cf. Luke 15:24; Rom 7:7–11 —‘I died’). (2) Their daily conduct had been determined by the standards of society (cf. Rom 12:2 ), the spirit of the age (v. 2 ). The latter metaphor is unique in the NT (‘the ruler of the power of the air’; cf. Jn 12:31 and Acts 26:18 ), and draws on the common understanding of the day that hostile spiritual forces influenced or determined human behaviour (hence 6:11–17 ). We still today speak, for example, of a criminal ‘underworld’ and often enough feel ourselves victims of forces, some apparently malevolent in character, that we cannot control. (3) Human responsibility becomes more evident in the talk of a life conducted ‘in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses’ (v. 3; cf. Col 3:5, 7; Titus 3:3; 1 Pet 1:14 ). By ‘flesh’ Paul means the weakness of the physical constitution (flesh decays); life lived at that level, devoted to feeding human appetites (food, sex, power), is a life lived apart from God, subject to the law of diminishing returns and the law of increasing subserviency to self-indulgent habit (cf. Gal 5:16–21 ). According to Rom 1:18–32 , this circle of sin-begetting-sin is also an expression of divine wrath just as is the final judgement (Rom 2:5; cf. Col 3:6 ). To be noted is the fact that the writer no longer speaks of ‘you’, as in 2:2 ; Christian Jews as well as Christian Gentiles are ‘by nature children of wrath’ (v. 3 , ‘all of us’; v. 5 , ‘we’), all equally dependent on the initiative of divine grace (cf. 2:10 ).

Still more, however, is said about the way in which grace had worked to change both character and context. Again, it should be noted, as throughout ch. 1 , the initiative is God's from start to finish: ‘But God...’ (v. 4 ). It is his mercy, love— ‘rich in mercy [cf. Rom 11:30–2 ], out of the great love with which he loved us’ (cf. Rom 5:8 )—and thrice-mentioned grace (vv. 5, 7, 8 ) which has been decisive. And the effective medium of God's action has been Christ—‘with Christ’ (v. 5 ), ‘in Christ Jesus’ (vv. 6, 7, 10 ). The three elements in the preceding analysis are in effect taken up one by one, in each case emphasizing the role of grace and of Christ.

  • (1) The state of deadness in trespasses and sins has been transformed—‘made alive with Christ’ (v. 5 ). This is the language of resurrection (Jn 5:21; 8:11; 1 Cor 15:22 ); the final proof of God's creative power is that he overcomes death (Rom 4:17 ). The idea of conversion as being bound up with Christ's death, so that Christ through his death becomes as it were a passageway to new life, is prominent elsewhere in the NT (e.g. Gal 2:19–20; 1 Tim 2:11; Heb 2:9–11 ). In the earlier Pauline letters the thought of sharing also in Christ's resurrection is reserved for the ‘not yet’ future (Rom 6:5; 8:11 ), but here, as in Col 2:13 , that too is referred to the ‘already’ of conversion. It is a logical development to describe the new life experienced through the Spirit (Jn 6:63; 2 Cor 3:6 ) as a sharing in Christ's life, that is, his risen life. Whatever the finer points of theology, however, conversion was evidently experienced in the early days of Christianity as life-giving, life-changing.

  • (2) Countering the captivity to ‘the ruler of the power of the air’, God had not only raised them with Christ to new life, but also raised them with Christ to the heavenly places (v. 6; see 1:3 ). The astonishing claim was necessary, perhaps, to break the previous psychological dependency. Implicit, then, is the conviction that their lives now focused in and through Christ had in effect risen above the old captivating influences of the present world (cf. Gal 6:14; Col 2:15 ), or at least need have no fear of any such power (Rom 8:31–9 ). But more explicit here is the thought that they (writer and readers) were as it were trophies of grace to make clear to everyone the overwhelming generosity of God's purpose and its most effective implementation in and through Christ (v. 7 ).

  • (3) The answer to lives dominated by human weakness and self-indulgence is the recognition that salvation is given by grace, through faith, the very opposite of human contriving or manipulation—as a gift of God (v. 8 ). The language is very Pauline, but the thought has shifted somewhat from the earlier letters. (a) Salvation is here spoken of as a completed act, whereas earlier on Paul spoke of it as future (Rom 5:9–10; 13:11; 1 Cor 3:15 ), and of Christians as those ‘being saved’ (1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15 ). There salvation covered the whole process of renewal and final redemption (Rom 8:23 ); here the thought is of the decisive character of what Christ has done and of the commitment to him and bound-up-ness with him. (b) Earlier too the talk of ‘works’ was always of ‘the works of the law’, that which was obligatory upon Jews as members of the covenant people—the key question being whether and how much of these laws were obligatory for Gentile believers. To which Paul had replied that only faith was necessary (Rom 3:19–20, 27–31; 9:30–2; Gal 2:15–16 ). Here the thought is broadened, or deepened. By ‘works’ the author here seems to mean any product of human effort: salvation is wholly and solely a ‘gift’ (v. 8 ). There is no scope for boasting in oneself, only in God (v. 9 ); the ‘turned-in-upon-oneself-ness’ of the old life (v. 3 ) has been given a new focus and orientation. The outcome is a complete contrast to the old way of life—God's handiwork, a new creation on the template of Christ, ‘good works’ such as God had made humankind for in the beginning (v. 10; cf. 4:24; 1 Cor 3:10–15 ). There should be a contrast, should there not, between a life lived by grace, through faith, in Christ (v. 10 ), and a life determined by the desires of flesh and mind (v. 3 )?

( 2:11–22 ) The New Humanity

The same ground is covered again in a second review of the readers' transition from past to present (cf. 5:8 ). This time, however, the review is not from the more general perspective (death to life) but from the Jewish perspective on Gentile disqualification from grace. The assumption is that God's saving purpose for humankind had been worked out through Israel, that Gentiles had hitherto been strangers to that promise, but that now through Christ the blessing of access to God and peace with God was open to all. The resulting new reality (the ‘new humanity’, v. 15 ) is sometimes understood as a third race (Christians) replacing the old division of the world into Jews and Gentiles (Lincoln 1990: 144). However, it would be more in tune with the paragraph to speak of the new humanity rather as the Israel which no longer defined itself by separation from the other nations but which is redefined to embrace all who believe in (Israel's) God through Christ (cf. Rom 2:28–9; 4:11–12; Gal 3:28–9; Phil 3:3 ). Either way, fundamental is the thought of Christianity as continuous with Israel of old and of being given to share in Israel's blessings, and that this has only been possible in and through Christ—‘he is our peace’ (v. 14 ). That this new humanity also fulfils God's purpose in creating humankind in the first place will be indicated in 4:24 .

vv. 11–12 recall the former disqualification. Characteristic of Jewish self-understanding was the conviction that circumcision was a positive identity marker ‘in the flesh’ which set them apart definitively from other nations as God's elect nation (Gen 17:9–14 ). So much so that the world could be divided from a Jewish perspective into ‘the uncircumcision’ and ‘the circumcision’—the whole range of differences focused in this one feature (as in Gal 2:7–9 ). Only Jews regarded lack of circumcision as something negative; in contrast, the typical Greek regarded circumcision as a form of mutilation. The added note that circumcision was ‘made … by human hands’ is an indication that the writer saw this evaluation of ‘circumcision … in the flesh’ as a boundary separating Gentiles from God's grace to be mistaken.

v. 12 lists the blessings from which Gentiles had hitherto been disqualified in ascending order of importance. Israel was not only a nation-state but a religious entity (a matter of continuing confusion from that day to this). ‘The covenants of promise’ (as in Rom 9:4 ) either refer to the regularly renewed covenant with the patriarchs (starting with Gen 12:3 ) or include such key promises as 2 Sam 7:12–14 . The worst state to be in is ‘having no hope [cf. 1 Thess 4:13 ] and without God in the world’.

‘But now in Christ Jesus’ (v. 13 ) those disqualifications have been removed from the nations (Gentiles). This is the subject of vv. 13–18 , a nicely structured passage (chiasmus) where the repeated references to ‘far off/near’ and ‘peace’ (vv. 13–14, 17 ; echoing Isa 57:19 ; see also 6:15 ) bracket the central imagery of hostility reconciled ‘in him’ (vv. 14–16; see Schnackenburg 1991: 106). The key to understanding the passage is the recognition that the writer sees two hostilities/antagonisms as interrelated. He assumes the Jewish view (cf. 4:17–18 ) that Gentiles, by definition cut off from the grace given through Israel's God-given covenant(s), are distant from God (cf. Isa 49:1; 66:18–19; Acts 2:39 ) and in need of reconciliation with God (cf. Rom 5:10; Col 1:21 ). But that enmity had become entangled and confused with enmity between Jew and Gentile. Both were expressed in ‘the dividing wall’ (v. 14 ), possibly an allusion to the barrier which marked off ‘the court of the Gentiles’ from ‘the court of Israel’ in the Jerusalem temple, and which Gentiles could not breach except on pain of death—symbolizing Gentile exclusion from the presence of God. But the main barrier was formed by the law, with particular reference to the rules (especially purity and food rules) which reinforced the separation of Jew from Gentile (v. 15; cf. Acts 10:9–16, 28, 34–5; Gal 2:11–16; Col 2:16, 21 ).

Consequently, for easily understandable psychological and social, as well as religious reasons, at the heart of Paul's gospel (himself a Jew) was the claim that God in Christ had resolved both antagonisms, and that the one could not be reconciled in isolation from the other. The two being made one was integral to peace with God (vv. 14–15 ); reconciliation of either was possible only as reconciliation of both (v. 16 ). The theology of the cross at this point is an elaboration of the earlier 2 Cor 5:17–21 (cf. Col 1:22; 2:14 ). But it contains overtones of a self-sacrifice acknowledged by both sides as ending an ancient blood feud, and echoes of the sacrifice which bonded the parties to the covenant in Gen 15:7–21 . The difference is that the one thus sacrificed continues to serve as and to maintain the bond thus created ‘in him’ (vv. 13, 17 ). The final imagery of v. 18 is of the reconciled peoples now able together to pass through the barrier which had previously divided them and together to celebrate their reconciliation in joint worship made possible by their common participation in the one Spirit ( 4:3–4 ; cf. again Phil 3:3 ); 3:12 says the same thing in complementary terms.

The outcome is not a new national or international entity, but individuals of all nations now sharing in privileges previously thought to be limited to Israel as a nation (v. 19; 3:6 )—‘fellowcitizens with the saints [see 1:4; cf. Phil 3:20; Heb 12:22–3 ] and members of the household of God’ (RSV; cf. Gal 6:10; 1 Tim 3:15; Heb 3:5–6 ). Those who enjoyed security both of citizenship and family/household membership would have been in a minority in many ancient cities.

The imagery of the last three verses ( 20–2 ) changes to that of a building, in particular a temple. The image was a natural one (cf. e.g. Mt 7:24–7; 1 Cor 3:9–11, 16; 1 Pet 2:5 ). There are three significant features here. First, the mention of ‘the apostles and prophets’ as the foundation (v. 20 ; contrast 1 Cor 3:11 ); given the order, the ‘prophets’ are probably Christian prophets (cf. 3:5; 4:11; 1 Cor 12:28 ). The implication seems to be that a foundation period is being looked back to (cf. Rev 21:14 ). Second, Christ is the cornerstone; that is, either the keystone or capstone, given that the role of foundation has already been filled (Lincoln 1990: 155–6); or the cornerstone, the first stone laid in the foundation, in relation to which all other parts of the foundation were aligned (Schnackenburg 1991: 124). The metaphor was drawn from Isa 28:16 (understood as foundation) and in early Christian apologetic was often combined with Ps 118:22 (Mt 21:42; Rom 9:33; 10:11; 1 Pet 2:4, 6–8 ). Third, bringing the paragraph (vv. 11–22 ) to a climax is the emphasis on the harmonious interrelatedness of the whole structure (see also 4:16 ). To be noted is the fact that it is conceived as a growing (not a static) unity, a growth dependent on harmonious working together (v. 21 ), an ongoing process (the tenses are all present continuous) which can only happen and be maintained ‘in the Lord’.

The end result ( 3:22 ) will be a people—no longer defined in national or ethnic terms—which functions as ‘a dwelling place for God’. This is the hope which always lies behind the sacramental focus of God's presence in human-built temple or earthly grown bread and wine—a people as the mode of God's presence and action in the world (cf. Ex 19:5–6; Lev 26:11–12; Ezek 37:27; 1 Pet 2:5 )—but which so often falls out of focus (cf. e.g. Isa 1:10–17; Acts 7:48–9; 1 Cor 10–11 ). The triadic formulation—for God, in the Spirit, interlocked through Christ and growing together in Christ—reflects the theological logic which led inexorably to the subsequent Trinitarian understanding of God (cf. 1:3–14 ).

( 3:1–13 ) Paul's Stewardship of the Great Mystery

A personal statement in self-defence is quite a common feature in Paul's letters—earlier over his apostleship (Gal 1:1–2:10; 1 Cor 15:8–11 ), or missionary practice (1 Cor 9; 2 Cor 10–12 ), or regarding his travel plans (e.g. Rom 1:9–15 ). Initially ch. 3 looks like a further example and provides one of the strongest supports for the view that the letter was written by Paul himself. But as the paragraph unfolds, the claims made move well beyond anything Paul ever claimed for himself earlier—a sustained measure of boasting in spiritual insight and commission with which the earlier Paul would probably have been uncomfortable (contrast e.g. Rom 11:13, 25; 16:25–6; 1 Cor 7:40; 14:37–8; 2 Cor 10:13–18; 12:1–13 ). It may thus ease the problem and make for a more consistent picture of Paul to conclude that these are the words of a close, ardent disciple of Paul rather than of Paul himself.

The opening self-identification as ‘the prisoner of Christ’ (v. 1 ; also 4:1 ; but note the definite article) is paralleled only in Philem 1 and 9 (cf. also Phil 1:7 ); it thus reflects the mood of the prison epistles, Paul's imprisonment providing both opportunity to survey his previous ministry and affording fresh opportunity for witness (cf. Phil 1:13–17; Philem 10, 13 ). Characteristic of Paul is his conviction that his calling was ‘for the sake of the Gentiles’ (v. 1; Gal 1:16; Rom 11:13 ) and that he had been given a special engracement for the work (vv. 2, 7, 8; cf. Rom 1:5; 15:15–16; 1 Cor 9:17; 15:10; Gal 2:7–9; Col 1:29 ). At the end of the paragraph too (v. 13 ) there is an awkwardly compressed twin Pauline theme that present sufferings foreshadow future glory (Rom 5:2–5; 8:17–21; 2 Cor 4:16–17 ) and that Paul's sufferings work to his converts' benefit (2 Cor 1:6; 4:7–12; Gal 4:19; Col 1:24; 2 Tim 2:10 ).

But the main burden of the self-testimony here is the revelation made known to Paul regarding ‘the mystery’ and Paul's understanding of it (vv. 3–4 ), to which he had previously briefly alluded ( 1:9–10 ). It had also been revealed to ‘his holy apostles and prophets’ (v. 5; see 2:20 ). But the emphasis quickly reverts to the fact that it was Paul who, first and foremost, and despite being ‘the very least of all the saints’ (cf. 1 Cor 15:9 ; on ‘saints’ see EPH 1:2 ), had been given the commission ( 3:7–8 ) to unveil this mystery ( 3:9–11 ).

‘Mystery’ is a term which echoes the language and perspective of Jewish apocalypses (already in Dan 2:18–19, 27–30; see e.g. Caragounis 1977 ). Typically the thought is of the divine purpose: it had been firm from the beginning (v. 11 ), but had been hidden through the generations (vv. 5, 9; Rom 16:25; Col 1:26 ), only to be revealed now at the appointed time, at the climax of the ages (cf. 1 Cor 10:11; Gal 4:4 ). Jewish apocalypses and the Qumran community make similar claims regarding their own insights.

The Christian insight, particularly of Paul, however, is quite distinctive. The mystery as now unfolded was different from the mysteries perceived by their fellow Jews. It was to the effect that God's purpose from the beginning had been to give the Gentiles a share in the same inheritance, the same body, the same promise (as Israel) ‘in Christ Jesus’ and ‘through the gospel’ (v. 6 ). To make known this now revealed mystery to the Gentiles and to everyone (but ‘everyone’ might not be part of the original text) was Paul's special commission (vv. 8–9 ).

The thought is certainly consistent with Paul's earlier references to the divine mystery—particularly Paul's first unveiling of the mystery to resolve the excruciating problem of Israel's rejection of the gospel (Rom 11:25–32 ). That the mystery focuses on the Jew/Gentile issue and involves the removal of the theological significance of that distinction is less to the fore in Col 1:27 , but is clearly central here in Ephesians (cf. 2:11–22 ). The language and imagery underline how crucial the issue was at the beginning of Christianity: the gospel as an invitation to all to share in the special relationship with God which both the Jewish and the Christian Bible assumes to have been Israel's special and distinctive prerogative, but only (Christians add) prior to the coming of Messiah Jesus (cf. Gal 3:29 ). If a text like this still speaks, then a sense of continuity with Israel, but transposed into a different key, remains fundamental for Christian self-understanding.

As in Col 1:27, 2:2, and 4:3 , the mystery is embodied, unveiled, and implemented in Christ (vv. 4, 8–9, 11; cf. 5:32; 6:19 ). Inevitably and unavoidably Christ is the key to and reason for the distinctiveness of the Christian mystery (cf. 1 Cor 1:24 —Christ ‘the wisdom of God’). Presumably it was the impact Jesus made in his ministry (in regard to sinners discounted by ‘the righteous’), and, in Paul's case particularly the impact of Christ's post-crucifixion encounter with Paul (the two cannot have been at odds otherwise Christianity would have fallen apart), which caused the first believers to see that God's grace was for all equally and without reference to national, racial, or social identity (cf. Gal 2:5–16; 3:28 ). As Paul saw so clearly, it followed, as day follows night, that a gospel which failed to preach that message was no gospel and a church which failed to live that message was no church. The Christ in whom such differences are not wholly discounted is not the Christ of God's mystery.

As at the end of ch. 1 , the cosmic dimensions of the divine purpose are not overlooked. It is the plan of the Creator which is in view (v. 9 ); there is no divorce between creation and salvation here (cf. Col 1:20 ). The audience in view in this unfolding of divine wisdom is not just every person but every power that can be envisaged or feared (v. 10; see 1:21 ). And as in 1:22–3 , the church is the medium through which and stage on which this richly diverse wisdom of God is enacted (v. 10; cf. 3:21 ). At the very least that should mean that the church is (or should be) the prototype and test bed for reconciliation between peoples and between humankind and the creation of which it is part.

The thought unwinds with a reminder of the supreme gift which Christ has brought: that ‘in him’ there can be a boldness and confidence of access to God (v. 12; cf. 2:18; Heb 4:16; 7:25; 1 Pet 3:18 ), a boldness and confidence made possible precisely because of the insight embodied in the gospel regarding God's ‘unsearchable riches’ and ‘many-sided wisdom’ (my tr.), concerning the character of creation and his purpose for all humankind. In Christ it is given to know the character of God as nowhere else so clearly, and through the trust which Christ inspires, or ‘through faith in him’ (cf. 3:17 ), humankind in its rich diversity can draw near to this God with boldness (cf. Rom 8:15–16 ).

( 3:14–21 ) The Opening Prayer Resumed

In effect everything from 1:3 to 3:21 is an extended prayer. The section 2:1–3:13 is as it were a meditative break within the prayer proper—on the effect of conversion ( 2:1–10 ), on the reconciliation of former hostility between Jew and Gentile ( 2:11–22 ), and on the divine mystery committed to Paul ( 3:1–13 ). The meditation has been of such a lofty character, rising repeatedly to praise for the wonder of God's purpose now enacted in Christ, that the spirit of prayer has scarcely been diminished. But now the meditation passes back to prayer proper and the prayer at the end of such a profound meditation is drawn to a fitting conclusion.

As throughout the preceding chapters, the object of the prayer and devotion is God alone. To kneel is the appropriate acknowledgement of humble submission before and dependence on such an overwhelming majesty (v. 14; cf. Rom 14:11; Phil 2:10–11 ). At the same time, it is God experienced and approached as Father (v. 14 ) which is the distinctive Christian feature (Lk 11:2; Rom 8:15–16; Gal 4:6–7 ). And it is no inconsistency for Christians to recognize that this same God is the source of every family and nation's identity (v. 15 )—the name indicating the character of the named (cf. Ps 147:4 ).

The petition echoes the earlier prayer in 1:17–19 . But it falls more clearly into two parts. The first ( 3:16–17 ) is a prayer for the addressees' spiritual condition. The source is again the riches of God's glory: ‘glory’ here is almost synonymous with ‘grace’ as in 1:7 ; God's grace is his glory. The concern is that they should be strengthened in their innermost being (cf. Rom 7:22; 2 Cor 4:16; 1 Pet 3:4 ); sustained firmness of conviction, commitment, and motivation will be in view (cf. Col 1:11 ). The means is God's Spirit, as the powerful presence of God at work within the depths of human discipleship and within the human situation.

It may seem surprising that the prayer (v. 17 ) is for Christ to dwell in their hearts (the tense denotes ‘come to dwell’ rather than ‘continue to dwell’). Had Christ not already come to dwell in the hearts of believers, at their conversion (cf. Rom 8:10; Gal 2:20; Col 1:27 )? But believers do often pray for something (e.g. the presence of God's Spirit in their worship) which they believe or hope to be already the case. Such a prayer is a natural expression of concerned piety. Here it reminds us that we should not transform such language (Christ indwelling the heart) into formal definitions or dogmas which can then be used to classify ‘genuine’ conversion or faith. Or else we should say that the prayer is for believers to be converted afresh every day. The ‘faith’ here refers back to the faith mentioned in 3:12 . To be noted also is the overlap between the Spirit and Christ (vv. 16–17 ): being strengthened through the Spirit and Christ indwelling are not clearly distinct experiences (cf. Rom 8:9–11; 1 Cor 6:17; 12:4–6 ).

It is equally important to recognize that this spiritual strengthening and indwelling is ‘rooted and founded in love’ (v. 17 , my tr.; note the echo of Col 2:7 ). The double metaphor (a living plant, a well-constructed building) was typical of Jeremiah (e.g. 1:9–10; 18:7–9; 24:6; 31:28 ) and is used by Paul in 1 Cor 3:10–14 . The love will presumably be God's initiating love and the divinely enabled human love in response, directed both to God and to the neighbour (Mk 12:28–33 ).

As in the first part of the prayer proper ( 1:15–23 ), so here, the second petition pushes through the constraints of human language and imagery ( 3:18–19 ). It is a prayer once again for knowledge (as in 1:17–19 )—but such knowledge! (1) To comprehend (impossible!) what we might describe as the four dimensions (a not uncommon metaphor—Lincoln 1990: 207–13; Schnackenburg 1991: 150–1) of God's love (the Gk. sentence in v. 18 is incomplete); ‘with all the saints’ is a reminder that only a church conscious of its own dimensions through time and space can even begin to hope for the realization of such a prayer. (2) To know (in experience) the love of Christ which goes beyond knowledge (v. 19 ), where words and metaphors and symbols are inadequate to the task of describing such experience (cf. Col 2:2–3 ). (3) With the result that they may be filled with all God's fullness! What Col 1:19 and 2:9 ascribed to Christ alone, Ephesians prays may be true also of the church ( 1:23; 3:19 )! The goal for the church is nothing less than that it embody the presence and love of God in the way that Christ did (cf. 4:13 ). Here the sequence of clauses implies that such a filling is the effect of appreciating and experiencing the mystery of God's love.

The prayer is brought fittingly to an end by a benediction (vv. 20–1 ) whose enthusiastic language matches the hyperbole of the preceding petition (cf. Rom 11:33–6 ). Such a petition can be put forward since it is addressed to a God whose goodwill and enabling grace far exceed human imagining (cf. Phil 4:7 ). He ‘is able to do beyond everything, infinitely more than we ask or think’ (v. 20 , my tr.); as elsewhere in Ephesians, the language tumbles over itself in the attempt to express the completeness of trust beyond vision (cf. 1:19 ). To be noted, however, is that the enabling power is already ‘at work within us’.

The final doxology (v. 21 ) ascribes glory to God both in the church and in Christ Jesus, since Christ in life, death, and resurrection is the paradigm of the one who most fully acknowledges God and the character of God, and since the church is the body of people on earth whose commitment is precisely both to live from and to live out that same acknowledgement.

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