Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Story of Ephesians

After the opening greetings, Ephesians 1:3-14 celebrates the initiative and action of God in planning, coming, rescuing, and restoring people. God’s plan is to ultimately restore the entire world back to harmony with God (1:10). One of the main victories of God is bringing people to a place of trust and allegiance in Him (1:13). The goal of God’s restoring work is that “we might live for the praise of His glory” (1:12). But the ability to live for the praise of His glory, comes from the fact that we are “in Christ” (1:11, 13), and marked with the empowering presence of the Spirit (1:14).

Paul then prays that the Spirit would give them both revelation and wisdom (1:15-19). Revelation of what God has done and is doing, and wisdom so that they may live and act appropriately in light of what God has done and will do. Moving from there, Paul highlights the sovereignty and Lordship of Jesus over all other powers (1:20-23), demonstrating his defeat over death and the ruler of darkness (‘the devil,’ see 4:27 & 6:11) by outlining the victories of Christ which are displayed in the rescue of the audience (2:1-10), and in the uniting of Jews and Gentiles into one new humanity (2:11-22). All these activities of God are the outworking of his kindness, mercy and grace (2:4, 7), in pursuit of a reconciled, restored and renewed world (1:10).

In 3:1-12 we have the story of Paul’s own efforts to advance the reconciling cause of God in Christ and the Spirit with a focus on the Gentile mission. Paul highlights in 3:10 that it is through the Church, the renewed humanity reconciled to God and each other, that God declares and shows forth his victorious reconciling efforts to the principalities and powers. In other words, the Church is the concrete display of God’s ages-old plan coming into full-effect through Jesus, and is the very centre of God’s plan in how he will bring “all things” together. Paul goes on to pray again that they might have a revelation of this (3:18), as this demonstrates the loving kindness of God at work in the world (3:19) to help and to heal, as well as bring hope to the desperate state of the world. This is crowned with a celebration of the capabilities of God’s limitless power, focussed in the Church (3:20-21).

It is from this story of God’s work and the audience being “in Christ” and having access to the Spirit’s power, that we are now encouraged to live worthy of the calling we have received (4:1). It is as if Paul was saying, “Become what you are.” Or better yet, “Work out what God has worked in you.” It is because of their new identity as those adopted into God’s family (1:5), as those who are “in Christ,” as those who are God’s inheritance (1:18), with God’s Spirit marking their lives (1:13), that Paul now outlines an ethical vision. But we should note, that this is not about ‘right and wrong’ but rather about living worthy of the calling we have received as God’s people, “created to be who we are in Christ” (2:10), the vocation to be the children of God amidst a broken and often destructive world.

The first element in Paul’s focus on living worthy of the calling is unity in the body of Christ as representative of the unity in the trinity of Father, Jesus and Spirit. Ephesians 4:1-6 emphasises the essential oneness of the church. But this is not uniformity, but rather a unity of purpose and togetherness in what God is doing to build his Church and reconcile his world. The writer has already shown that previous divisions in the community have been overcome (2:11-22), and that the church is now one (re)new(ed) humanity (1:15), thus they are exhorted to “make every effort to maintain” that which God has done among them (4:3). They are to partner together in God’s reconciling efforts to bring back together, in hope and healing, the broken and fragmented world they inhabit.

The second element is that of gifting which is for the benefit of the body, the maturity of God’s people, and the realisation of our Christ-focussed lives. In 4:7-16 this is seen in that different people have different gifting, but all are to serve the community and household of God (in unity, not uniformity), in helping each other to mature and partner together in God’s mission. Each person has a different gifting and function within the community, but all are to partner together in building the community and helping in God’s ongoing work of redemption. There is a unity of purpose in the diversity of gifting, and this is so that each may play their part in helping one another and the church in God’s unfolding mission.

It is only then that the third element, the instruction to “no longer live as Gentiles” in 4:17-5:14, can make sense. It is because of their commitment to unity, and the diverse gifting of people as the renewed humanity of God that Paul calls them to live a different kind of life. Here we see Paul offering various characteristics of the new community in Christ. This is not to be seen as a new law or catalogue of do’s and don’ts. Rather, here we have both a positive description of what the church will be, and a negative description of what the church shall not be. The portrait here is of the kind of life the community should aspire to, and the kind of actions the community should avoid.

All of this sets the audience up for the instructions to be wise, filled with the Spirit and mutually submitting to one another (5:15-21), which is then directly connected to the household codes of 5:22-6:9. It is only in the context of being wise, being continually filled with the Spirit, and submitting to one another in the fear of the Lord, that the household codes can make sense. 5:15-21 provide the context and heading for all the instructions in the household code. Living together requires mutual submission to one another, and primarily the Lord. Thus it requires a constant engagement with His Spirit which marks out the Church as the people of God, and it requires constant wisdom from above, hence Paul’s prayer in 1:17 and 3:16-21.

The final instruction to the community is to embody the way of God by standing firm in the battle they find themselves. 6:10-20 should not be isolated from what has gone before, nor relegated to some esoteric spiritual battle, but should be seen as a helpful summary of how to implement and integrate the theological vision of life into the often mundane realities of life. This vision is built on the foundation of what he has said in 1:3-3:21 and the vision of life cast in 4:1-6:9. This is how we are to live in Christ, amidst a hostile world, empowered by the Spirit in giving thanks and praise to a God who is worthy of our attention, our affection, and our allegiance. And this God is worthy, because he has initiated a response that comes from his loving kindness, mercy and grace, that stems from His commitment to humanity as their Creator.

Recommended Reading: Timothy G. Gombis, The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God.

Sean du Toit, 24th March, 2011.

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