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Ephesians and the Fullness of Life Here and Now

Image by Jolande from Pixabay

This is the first of two parts of the author’s reflections on Ephesians, the theme of this quarter's Adult Bible Study Guide. Next week, the second part will focus on a comparison between key themes in Ephesians and themes in other letters attributed to Paul’s.

It is somewhat difficult to follow the argument of the letter “to the saints at Ephesus who are also faithful” due to the ponderous and overdrawn descriptions used by its author.[1] At its heart, the letter is about fullness, completeness, or in Greek pleroma. The letter’s author seems intent on showing his readers that God’s eternally predetermined will has been to unify all things in heaven and earth into one Pleroma—one fullness (of God [3:19], of Christ [4:13], of Spirit [5:18]), the one thing that fully contains all things. And God has already accomplished this cosmic unification Pleroma through Christ, according to his good pleasure. The plan is on track. The blood of Christ has accomplished the forgiveness of their sins, the saints have been redeemed, and God has lavishly been pouring his grace on them.

And not only that. In Christ, God has also revealed to them a mystery—the predetermined plan for the administration (oikonomían, 1:10) of the times. Having been told God’s plan for his creation and having believed it, the letter’s recipients have something to hope for—and have even received from God the down payment that guarantees the whole plan God has in mind for them. The Holy Spirit has sealed them as children who will possess the inheritance. The author of the letter wishes that his readers may have “the eyes of their heart” enlightened by the Spirit with more wisdom and revelation so that they may fully know three things: 1) what they can hope for; 2) the riches of the saints’ inheritance, and 3) the greatness of the power of those who have faith, which is the power of God working in them. God’s great power was demonstrated by the resurrection of Christ and his elevation to the heavenly places where he now sits at God’s right hand, above every other power of this age and the age to come. On his throne, Christ is over all things and working for the benefit of the church. He is the head of the church, which is his body and encompasses the Pleroma.

Having established what God has already done in the past, the author turns his attention to the present situation in which the saints find themselves. Somehow, in spite of the fact that all things have been brought under Christ’s control, the prince of the power of the air is still at work on the “children of disobedience” who conduct themselves according to the ways of the world and are dead in their sins. The readers know this. Not too long ago they, too, were dead sinners and therefore children of wrath who lived according to the desires of the body and mind. However, acting according to his eternally predetermined will with the power demonstrated at the resurrection of Christ, God has been giving life to those who were dead in their sins but are now saints. Not only has God been giving them life, but he has even been raising them sit to in heavenly places with Christ.

All this the grace of God has already done in them; they are indeed God’s poiesis, God’s workmanship. They have been created new persons able to perform the good works God had preordained for them. This they must remember.

Having contrasted the readers’ condition before and after God’s work on them, the author is ready to address the purpose of his letter. It has to do with what is taking place in their churches. There is division, a building up of walls. Readers may even be feeling insecure in their belonging to the people of God. Developing his argument with frequent references to Paul’s letters, the author wishes to convince his readers that rather than to give in to those who do not welcome them into the church and are tearing down the church, they should remain faithful to the God who pours his love on all those who have faith (cf. Rom. 5:1–5).

During Paul’s lifetime, the movement of the disciples of Christ came to a compromise over tensions between Jewish followers of Jesus and gentile converts, symbolized by the decision that gentiles who became Christian did not need to be circumcised. This resulted in a dual mission under a big tent—a mission to gentiles led by Paul and one to Jews led by Peter. Despite the fact that James, Peter, and John gave the right hand of fellowship to seal their agreement with Paul about the two missions, throughout his ministry Paul faced resistance and even persecution by some who insisted on circumcising Paul’s converts (Gal. 4:9–11; 6:15). Paul became quite frustrated with them, and his patience ran low. He called some dogs (Phil. 3:2) and suggested that those who are trying to circumcise his converts should instead of cutting others’ foreskins cut their own penises (Gal. 5:12).

Yet Paul also kept his promise to assist the poor in Jerusalem by collecting money from the churches in Asia, Greece, and Macedonia for their relief. He determined to personally deliver the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, knowing that he was taking a serious risk by doing so. For him the collection was a way of keeping the two missions bound together. His fears of opposition from those insisting that the movement was a Jewish sect proved to have been well founded. In Jerusalem he was accused by Jewish Christians of sparking a riot at the temple, taken prisoner by the Roman procurator, and sent in chains to Rome to be judged by a higher court.

With the passage of time, Paul’s efforts to keep the two missions working harmoniously proved ineffective. The relationships between Jews and Gentiles within the church had become open hostility (2:16). The movement was in danger of falling apart, and the way to prevent it was to establish a structure of authority for the administration of its missions. In some contexts, the gentile Christians may have begun to feel ostracized by those who claimed to possess the true revelation of God and the right to be children of God. This is the scenario that prompted the author of this letter to the uncircumcised gentiles—to those considered outsiders who are far off without God in the world.

The author’s agenda is to reaffirm to his readers that God’s will, which had been a mystery until then, has now been revealed and is being carried out among them. This can easily be seen by those who are enlightened by the Holy Spirit with wisdom and revelation. We know God’s ways most definitely from the gospel preached by Paul, the author reminds readers, who was enlightened by a direct revelation from Christ. Paul insisted that election is not automatic according to genealogy but according to God’s will. Jews who have the law of Moses and consider themselves the elect are no different from gentiles who do not have the law—both are sinners. God is no respecter of persons; life in Christ is available to all those who have faith in God and crucify themselves with Christ. Both Jews and gentiles can become exhibits of God’s justice rather than of God’s wrath (Rom. 1:16–3:30).

From before the foundation of the world, the plan of God has been to tear down the walls and the mechanisms for making distinctions among human beings, and now they have indeed been eliminated by the blood of Christ. According to God’s will, the Church is the body of Christ, the agent through which the unification of the Pleroma is accomplished. The Holy Spirit is prodigally filling every heart with the love of God and the result is the reign of peace. By the end of chapter 2 the author has made his case. The solution to the hostility tearing down the church and preventing the peace of God from manifesting itself is to take seriously the knowledge that God’s will is to unify all things in Christ, as presented in the gospel of Paul.

The future of the saints is already determined. God is rich in glory and power, and he will give them extra inner strength through his Spirit. When Christ dwells in their heart, he establishes the roots of their being in the ground of love. Then they will grasp firmly and know, in the communion of all the saints, the breadth, length, height and depth of the super grasp of the love of Christ, who already knows them well. Then they will have attained what they hope for; they will be full of all the Pleroma of God.

In this way the author has elaborated the three things to be known about the mystery of God’s will: what they can hope for, the riches of their inheritance, and the power that will take them from hoping to the possession of the inheritance of the children of God. Most of the rest of the letter has to do with advice concerning how to live a life worthy of their calling (4:1). They are gentiles, but they should not live the way gentiles do. In their former days they lived like gentiles, but now they must put off “the old person (ánthropos).” They must allow the Spirit to renew their minds and invest them with “the new person (ánthropos)” who has been created by God in the righteousness and holiness of truth (4:22–24). They must now make a life worth of their calling, and that begins by recognizing the revealed mystery of God’s plan to tear down dividing walls, bringing together those who were far off with those who were near.


Notes & References:

[1] The phrase “at Ephesus” is omitted in pap. 46, original Sinaiticus, original Vaticanus, codexes 424 (third copist) and 1739 and in the quotations of several Church Fathers (Marcion, Tertullian, Origen and Ephrem).


Herold Weiss is professor emeritus of religious studies at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, IN. His latest book is The End of the Scroll: Biblical Apocalyptic Trajectories.

Title image by Jolande from Pixabay.

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