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The Key to Unity As Found in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians


The Setting

When the evangelist’s letter reached Ephesus, its hearers were part of one of the wealthiest, most cosmopolitan cities in the Roman Empire. A strategically placed port, it had long been the hub of trade and commerce from Eastern Asia Minor to the Mediterranean and thus of interest to every king and leader who wanted to control the flow of resources from the East to the West. Over the centuries, Ephesus had witnessed one attempt after another to meld the Mediterranean region into one unified political and economic region serving the goals of a dominant lord who dreamed that all cities and tribes could be subjugated into a single, ordered system.

Wisdom and The Management of Life in a Complicated Universe

Through the steady succession of tyrants and visionaries, a body of common wisdom was formulated and ingrained in the awareness of the region: ordinary people, while certainly accountable for the roles they played in their lives, were subject to forces quite beyond themselves. Fate was larger than the choices and desires of any particular individual or group. Additionally, while the gods had agendas that might have nothing to do with the desires or wellbeing of any local populace, the gods had to be constantly acknowledged, praised and placated lest they became irritated and abandoned the care and protection of their people. The gods were the great benefactors who provided the basic necessities from which ordinary people wrested a living. They also could protect against the demonic and unseen evil forces that created havoc and chaos.  Determining (divining) the will of the gods and acting in harmony with their purposes improved the group’s chance of prosperity and survival. The praise, offerings, and service given them functioned to mitigate the gods’ capriciousness and arbitrary nature, as the gods were partially dependent on the locals’ offerings and so had at least some interest in maintaining the given order.

Benefactors and Beneficiaries: The Human Dimension

The nurture of the gods was only one level of life that had to be managed.  In a system of benefaction, where the privileged few held the keys to the future of individual families and cities, human benefactors also had to be kept happy through continual recognition, gifts, symbolic gestures of gratitude and dependence, and reassurances of loyalty. While fate and the gods might have the final word on the destiny of an individual or group, human benefactors and leaders were also a vital component of on-going harmony and security. 

Over the centuries, observing the rising and falling of vast empires (with the human misery that attended each change in political control), the significance of the character of the king or emperor became part of common wisdom. The general welfare of the population depended on the leader’s moral strength: his rectitude towards the gods, self-discipline, vision, strength, and diligence determined his ability to establish and maintain the level of civil compliance necessary to secure regulated behavior. The King/Emperor was the ultimate human (or incarnated god) benefactor, in that he secured the gifts of order, stability, security, and prosperity that made daily life for ordinary people possible (that he also dispensed titles, positions, patents, and property to individual lieutenants and courtiers was another function of his benefaction). In return for these benefits, he expected an appropriate response from his beneficiaries: respect, loyalty, service, submission, gratitude, and the diligent performance of the duties of various positions. In addition to cultural rituals of respect, the ruler expected co-operation with his intentions, plans, and goals. This was the only appropriate response to the “grace” and largesse he had shown and with which he endowed them.

For courtiers and average citizens alike, the system was clear and logical. Their lives were lived under the umbrella of the ruler, and they must yield the appropriate response if they wanted the on-going protection necessary to shield them from the vicissitudes of chaos and social disruption. Thus, it behooved each to pay close attention to the duties of reciprocity, give continual demonstrations of gratitude, loyalty, and respect for the intentions/plans of the ruler so that they could share in the benefits that he secured for them. They were his loyal allies, their fate intertwined with his, submitted to and bound to him and other regional inhabitants by the common goal of achieving his ends.

Social Order vs. The Human Condition

Yet, despite this acknowledged wisdom, the peoples of the Mediterranean were like peoples everywhere: they participated in the globally common human attempts to grab privilege and power, to seize positions of dominance, and to make the ruler’s intentions secondary to their own goals of accumulating wealth, prominence, and place. In a fiercely competitive and hierarchical system, the drive for prestige and power, the will to gain benefits for one’s own family/town/group at the expense of others, and the substitution of individual will for that of the ruler, frequently threatened to sacrifice the common good (prosperity, security, order) for the benefit of a faction. While the appropriate response to the benefactor was clear, the human proclivity to divisions and attempts to seize power meant that the balance between order and chaos was always precarious, and the fragility of peace widely recognized. Unity and social harmony were the vital components to produce the conditions necessary for ongoing prosperity and peace. Ultimately, even the gods wanted humans to conduct themselves in an ordered manner so that they (the gods) continued to receive the gifts and acknowledgement that “fed” them. Any society that refused to cooperate with this overarching desire of the gods for uninterrupted service, and/or failure to submit to the ruler the gods had established, risked the chaos and suffering that came along with the gods’ subsequent abandonment.

Paul’s Letter and Its Hearers

The apostolic letter that arrived for the Ephesians addressed a group of Christians who had been shaped by this cultural system and understood this view of the nature of life. Gods and benefactors must be honored, and the appropriate response to the gifts and grace they had shown was gratitude and service. The letter that became known as the epistle to the Ephesians presents Paul as an ambassador of the one true God, the ultimate ruler and benefactor (greater than Caesar); the letter a missive reciting God’s benefactions and communicating his will for his household (kingdom). In short, Paul used a form and referenced what people knew from their daily life to introduce the expectations of God for them in a manner that made sense to them.

Opening with awed praise for the gracious and legitimate Ruler and Benefactor of all, Paul is clear that God’s blessings come to humanity through Jesus, who has been with the Father since before the foundation of the world. In the very first lines of the epistle, Paul launches into a description of God’s eternal intentions—that all things in heaven and earth be gathered up into and placed under the lordship of Jesus Christ. A new order is created as humans are gathered into Christ: ancient divisions and human hostilities disappear as humans find and anchor their identity as God’s adopted children. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s will had been revealed decisively: that humans desist in their practices of dividing themselves into factions and competing categories: separations, schisms, and divisions had been reconciled in Christ.

Alienation and estrangement from God and each other had been overcome as the intentions and character of God, the most benevolent and loving benefactor, were revealed and exhibited before the cosmos at the cross. Christ’s victory on there demonstrated both God’s supremacy over all other forces and claims to power and his right to ultimate allegiance and submission. While God in Jesus had entered a disordered and chaotic cosmos, God’s intentions for the planet were clarified in Jesus and were now in the process of being restored and reorganized in Christ. Strangers and family, friends and aliens, enemies and foes, insiders and outsiders, were being melded (”brought near,”) into one unified body of Christ, “For he is our peace” (Eph. 2:14).

No longer need anyone guess as to God’s will or his intention for his loyal subjects/allies/true offspring: it was that believers become the body of Christ now that he had returned to the heavenly sphere, actively promoting the reconciliation he had provided. To do so meant abandoning former allegiances and practices of separation and exclusion: to embrace God’s will put believers at cross-purposes with the expectations and accepted practices of their communities (and lesser benefactors).

The Mystery of God’s Intent and the Challenge of Culture

This was a mystery, how believers would turn their backs on cultural mandates and mazeways, and instead depend on Jesus as the source of their being and movement. This was a radically-new way of being, “ordered” not on the basis of former, human categories, but as vital, living, embodied elements of his earthly presence, a greater mystery still. It was a transformation based on a revised understanding of self, roles and relationships that grew out of grasping the graciousness of God and his summons to become “servants” of Christ. Everyone knew that a faithful servant found his or her purpose in carrying out the master’s will, and located his or her own sense of success in the realization of the master’s plans or intentions. Switching one’s allegiance to God, and declaring Jesus as one’s lord and master, a believer voluntarily subordinated former goals to the successful accomplishment of God’s intent: the reunification of humanity into a body of love.

Earlier, the prophet Isaiah (28:16) had used the metaphor of God laying a foundation or corner stone, the first building block placed and to which every subsequent stone had to line up. As no mortar was used, any additional block had to be smoothed and shaped, or trued, to achieve consistency with that foundational stone. Every component used in the building, walls, and ceilings were fitted together by means of alignment. This metaphor was particularly significant as Messianic expectations grew during the Roman period, and many anticipated a new, divine temple for God’s dwelling place on earth. While Paul employed this metaphor as well, naming Jesus as the cornerstone with which understanding of the law and the prophets had to be trued, and believers as living stones (Eph. 2:19–22) in that expected temple, his picture of the followers of the Way as the actual embodiment of Christ (God) on earth was even more astonishing.

How Shall We then Live?

The revelation of God’s intent and directive was an act of God’s grace to which humans must choose their response: would, or would they not, align their lives with God’s will?  The second portion of Ephesians (Chapters 4–6) is a call or summons to believers to be transformed from their former selves, where they focused on markers that separated them from each other, and instead live the lives “worthy of their calling” (4:1) as representatives of God, imitators of Christ (“we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” 4:15–16).

If there remained any question as how to find the requisite unity, Paul points the believers back to the factors that they held in common and bound them together: one body, spirit, and hope of their calling, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Who is above all and through all and in all” (4:4–6).  Focusing on these shared elements, believers could come together as a community, proceeding in “all humility and gentleness, with patience, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:2–3). Jesus final command, “Love one another as I have loved you,” and the revelation of God’s intent to unify all in Christ, provided the marching orders for those who would take to “The Way.” As they journeyed together in the mandate to spread the news of God’s graciousness and will, they were to “Put away all bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven” (4:30-32). Their words would “give grace to all who hear,” (4:29) as they aligned their lives with God’s intent, being “imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1-2).

Pointing the Direction Towards the Incarnation of God’s Will

Paul makes some effort to provide some guidance as to the direction living this mandate would, and would not, take believers. He is clear that following God’s intent brought changes in every aspect of life; private, household, and public. In whatever situation one found oneself, one remained a child of light, and “the fruit of the light is good and right and true” (5:8-9). Therefore, in place of former efforts motivated by vice, greed, and desire for self-promotion to compete for pride of place, actions that separated and estranged people from each other and God, believers’ behavior were to be characterized by humility and mutual regard, growing from respect and love.

As insurance during religious gatherings that the Spirit would prevail, believers were to spend their time together praising the One who brought them together to be one, singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:19-20). Thus would God be acknowledged and honored as the ultimate benefactor and ruler of one’s life, and demonstrations of loyalty and allegiance be offered.

Imitating Christ

Paul, God’s “ambassador in chains” (6:20), was a realist: he knew that the character of an individual (or group) is shaped over time, as decisions are made repeatedly to respond to challenges. The role of owned identity is critical in the process. Where that identity is firmly rooted in an experiential knowledge of the God of love and peace, and servanthood to that God is embraced and celebrated, believers have a consistent guide for the choices that form their (individual and corporate) character. In deepest humility and respect for all, they must know that they are on a mission to tear down walls of separation and reveal God’s will: that all will imitate Christ’s example of love and submission to the Divine intent for the reunification of humanity.

Paul’s asked that believers pray that he be bold in pronouncing the “mystery of the gospel” (6:19). His prayer for the believers’ community was that as they assumed their identity as servants of God and the body of Christ. bound together by the Spirit, they would “live in love with faith” and experience the grace available to all “who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:23-24). So what did Paul see as the key to unity? A corporate vision of each believer as a gifted and integral part of the body of Christ, called to journey together on a mission to proclaim the good news of God’s intent that humanity discard corrupt visions of divisions and separations and instead grow into an expression of His Graciousness and Love. Given the multitude of God’s benefactions and graciousness to us, how can we respond with anything other than a grateful and enthusiastic, “Yes”? How shall we then live? Obviously, in the unity of love, pressing together to gather strength of voice as we announce to the world that God has, through Jesus, overcome all the obstacles and powers and forces that would separate us, and is summoning back into the life that he intended for us from before the beginning of the world. We shall live as one family, made in the image of God as his offspring, destined to be a source of joy and life and light on this planet.

Dr. Ginger Hanks Harwood, who has taught religion at Pacific Union College, Walla Walla University, Loma Linda University, and La Sierra University, has retired to Northern California. She continues to study the Scriptures and religious practices in their original cultural context in an effort to understand the what the manuscript authors and the hearer/participants would have understood when passages were read initially that we might miss now as we read them from our own context.


Photo on Pexels


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