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Ephesians’s Present Pleroma, Paul’s Future Parousia


This is the second part of the author’s reflections on Ephesians, the theme of this quarter's Adult Bible Study Guide. Last week's focus was on Ephesians's theme of the here and now

The letter to the Ephesians purports to be written by Paul, the one who received a special revelation from Christ himself and was commissioned by God as the apostle to the gentiles. However, Acts of the Apostles reports that Paul needed to identify himself to the Ephesians, or to the gentile Christians of churches in Asia, and establish his authority as the one who could tell them the mystery of God’s will. Taking at face value both the author’s claim to be Paul and the accuracy of these reports in Acts is inconceivable. According to the author of Acts, Paul was famous in the whole of Western Asia. On the other hand, if a devoted follower of Paul was trying to revive the gospel of Paul that had been rejected by many of those advocates of “the circumcision” and was little known thirty years after his death when his letters had not yet been collected and published as a set, it is understandable that the author felt the need to establish the authority of Paul’s gospel (3:1–13) in order to use it as the foundation for his message to gentile saints.

The author has a good grasp of the message of Paul and at some points comes close to the phrasing found in his letters. He understands that “the prince of the power of the air” (2:2)—that is, “the devil” (4:27)—is actively engaged in preventing the saints from doing the will of God; as a result, “the days are evil” (5:16). Thus, even if he does not quite say that Satan is the “god of the world” (2 Cor. 4:4) where death “reigns” (Rom. 5: 17), he presupposes the apocalyptic notion of The Fall. He also refers to the apocalyptic notion of this age and the age to come, which is essential to Paul (1:21; 2:7), but the references to it only serve rhetorical flourishes.

Like Paul the apocalypticist, the author understands that history runs a predetermined course established by God at the beginning. Most significantly, also like Paul, the author transfers the prophetic Day of the Lord from the Final Judgment to the death and resurrection of Christ. For him, like for Paul, Christ’s resurrection gives to all the saints life now. At one time all gentiles were “by nature children of wrath” (2:3), “children of disobedience” on whom the wrath of God falls (5:6). Now the gentiles who responded with faith to the revelation of the mystery of God’s will have received life; they are “children of light” (5:8), live “for the praise of his glory” (1:12), and perform the good works “prepared beforehand” by God for them (2:10). Both authors agree that the resurrection of Jesus makes possible the life of those of faith without discriminating distinctions.

The author of this letter uses the gospel preached by Paul to give the gentiles of the churches in Asia reasons for staying “strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might,” confident of their status as saints who live by the power of God. In quite a few ways, however, he differs from Paul significantly. To begin with, according to him the church is a cosmic temple embracing the Pleroma, or fullness, which is the body of Christ. Referring to the church as a temple, a building, he sees Christ as the cornerstone that guarantees the building’s integrity. But he considers that the apostles and prophets are its foundation (2:20), apparently, because they were the first to receive the revelation of the mystery that had been hidden to previous generations of the sons of men (3:5). It is difficult to imagine Paul saying that the church is built on the apostles (1 Cor. 3:11), but one involved in the institutionalization of the church toward the end of the first century could see it this way. 

By contrast, Paul, rather than seeing the church in cosmic terms, sees it in the local congregations in which the members who are agents of God’s justice have physical communion and are the body of Christ, the body being what allows persons to communicate and act in society. For Paul, each church member is a temple of God in which the Holy Spirit dwells and a member of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 3:16 [the reference is with a plural ‘you’]). Through them Christ is present and active in the fallen world. For the author of Ephesians, on the other hand, the church is a cosmic institution which makes possible the integration of the saint into the Pleroma. In other words, while Paul sees that human beings are saved by living in the fallen world crucified and redeemed in Christ, for the author of this letter humans are saved by being members of the church.

The author of this letter does make use of the notion of a devil, the prince of the power of the air, who makes life difficult in those days, but this does not necessitate the apocalyptic destruction of the world. According to him the death of Christ brought about the abolishment of “the law of commandments and ordinances” (2:15) and the “forgiveness of trespasses” (1:7) to those who were dead in them (2:5). His understanding of what the death and the resurrection of Christ accomplished is quite different from that of Paul. He sees that humans had been living dead in sin condemned by the law. The blood of Christ gave them forgiveness for their sins and the resurrection of Christ made it possible to “create . . . one new man (anthropos) in place of the two [present in the law], so making peace . . . thereby bringing hostility to an end” (2: 15–16). The power that gave them life as new persons is now revealing to them the fullness of God’s will to the point where they will know the Pleroma. In this way God is fulfilling his design for the future of his creation (2:5–7; 3:18–19).

For his part, Paul sees humanity living in a fallen world but enjoying themselves unaware of their condition as slaves of Sin and Death. The death of Christ made a breach in the kingdom of death, taking away its monopoly over the fallen world. This has made it possible for fallen men and women to die to the fallen world in which they were slaves (Rom. 6:3–4). The resurrection of Christ established a new creation in which Christ is the last (eschatological) Adam. Those who have the faith that Jesus had when facing death and who join him in his death in the fallen world God raises as creatures in the humanity that is descended from the last Adam, and they live by the power of the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead (Gal. 2:20; 6:15).

While the author of this letter thinks that humans must believe the revelation of the mystery and have God forgive their sins, Paul thinks that what they must do is have the faith Jesus had and, with confidence on the One who promises life, crucify themselves with Christ. While living as those who have life in Christ, the saints still live in the fallen world with the power of evil working inside them. It makes them do what they do not want to do rather than what they wish to do. However, since they live in Christ, they no longer live under the law; it no longer has power to condemn them because it operates in the fallen world, the one in which they died when they crucified themselves with Christ (Rom. 7:19–21; 8:1). Unlike the author of this letter, Paul’s gospel does not refer to the forgiveness of sins; it does, however, point out that dying with Christ brings about freedom from the law (Gal. 3:19; 5:1; Rom. 6:14; 10:4).

For Paul the mystery has to do with the resurrection of those who died biologically in Christ, rather than with God’s plan to have all his creatures integrated into the Pleroma in the course of their life on earth. Those who are dead in Christ will be raised not with mortal bodies of flesh but with immortal spirit bodies. Only then will the consequences of the Fall, which plays a major role in Paul’s gospel but is absent in Ephesians, be undone. Only then will humans attain perfection. While living in the flesh they can only stride forward toward perfection (1 Cor. 15:43–45, 51–56; Phil. 3:10–12, 20–21).

In fact, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15 precisely to argue against those who teach that life with God means flourishing in the Pleroma of God in this life, but that is precisely what this letter teaches. In Ephesians, the ones who were dead in sin and had their sins forgiven now have been made alive and are being given wisdom to know and participate in the Pleroma. There is no resurrection of the dead. But for Paul, if there is no resurrection of the dead, Christ died in vain (1 Cor. 15:16–19). For Paul, the mystery is that God will accomplish the final destruction of the consequences of the sin of Adam that resulted in the denial of access to the tree of life; the enemy, death, will be no more. In Ephesians, there are no references to the final judgment, the Parousia, or the resurrection from the grave.

As already noted, Paul understood that while living in the fallen world a force of evil within him caused him to do what he did not want to do. That is the tragedy of living between the Christ event and the Parousia. Christians must struggle with the evil tendencies that cause them to do evil (to kakos). The Christian life is afflicted by an internal struggle resulting from finding oneself doing the evil one does not want to do rather than the good one wishes to do (Rom. 7:15). The author of this letter sees Christians living as new, well-integrated persons in a unified cosmos. The church is showing not only “all people” but also “the principalities and powers in heavenly places” the wisdom of the eternal purpose of God’s will. Apparently, the principalities and powers who are being made aware of the mystery are not giving up on their efforts to deceive the faithful. Thus Christians, rather than having an internal struggle with the evil that prevents them from doing the good they wish to do, have to put on the whole armor of God to fight “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12). The saints, who have already been lifted up to sit with Christ in heavenly places, have to fight against the rulers of this age who are in that space.

According to Paul, however, Christ is the one who, after being raised from among the dead by God, had to fight against “every rule and every authority and power” until he destroyed them. Then, having subjected them under his rule, “he delivered the kingdom to God the Father.” The last enemy to be destroyed will be Death. Once everything is under God’s feet, the Son will also subject himself to the Father, so that, finally, “God may be everything to every one” (1 Cor. 15: 24 – 28). These are two quite different scenarios for the establishment of God’s ultimate triumph.

The author of Ephesians tells his readers that since they have believed the revelation of the eternal will of God that had been kept hidden to previous generations, they now have hope. Their hope is to gain full knowledge of the way in which God is bringing together all things. As they receive more wisdom and revelation, they will be transformed from those who hope for unity and peace to those who experience the full love of God and peace. Right now they are experiencing enmity between Jews and gentiles in the church. Their hope is that soon they will be experiencing the unity that is willed by God, that God is working to establish, and that will be fully realized when they are fully immersed in the Pleroma. Paul’s hope, however, is that the internal struggle taking place inside those who live both in Christ and in the flesh will come to an end soon at the Parousia, when both those who died in Christ and those who are living in Christ will be divested of the body of flesh and be given a glorious spirit body, so that they will be integrated as spiritual beings.

Even though Paul and the anonymous author of Ephesians have different visions of what is the eternal plan of God, they agree that it is to give God’s creation a full harmonious and fruitful existence. They agree that the gospel of Christ intends to give power to transpose what the mind transformed by the Holy Spirit knows into what the body empowered by the Spirit does. At its core, Christianity is not a set of doctrines but a way of being persons in God’s world who are fully convinced that what they are doing is the will of God (Rom. 14:5, 22). What Christians do is a revelation of who they are. Thus, both authors advise their readers saying: “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1), and “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 2:27). That is the way to live integrated into the will of God. As Paul says, those who eat only vegetables and those who eat all things edible, those who give special attention to one day and those who give special attention to all days—all must welcome each other in a unifying embrace (Rom. 14: 1–5).

All this to say that the power of the gospel is not for the preservation of divisions among those whose faith is in the God who created heaven and earth. It is to bring harmony and peace in the church. This message is quite relevant to an Adventist church that finds itself being torn apart by conservative and progressive ideologues. I conclude, imitating the author of Ephesians, quoting Paul: “I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say” (1 Cor. 10:15).
It is also to point out that investigations of the authorship of a biblical book have nothing to say about the book’s inspiration or canonicity. Authorship and status are totally different matters. They are, however, very useful if the book is to be read intelligently.

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: Louis Schaettle, Order, ca. 1916. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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