The Uniform Series text for Sunday, December 31, is Ephesians 4:1-16. Here are my notes on the text:
Context: we usually think of the book of Ephesians as a letter, and it has some of the typical forms of a letter – a greeting, salutation, some thematic material, some instruction, and a conclusion. However, it also has elements of a liturgy, and it is not specifically addressed to a single church, so some readers suspect it might have been circulated to a group of churches in the same area.
Ephesians is one of the letters scholars almost universally conclude was written by someone other than the Paul who wrote Galatians, Corinthians and Romans, because of the different style and vocabulary. The main significance of that consensus is that Ephesians seems to date from a later historical period than some of the other letters. It doesn’t mean original Paul would have disagreed much with the theology in the text.
Recurrent themes in the book of Ephesians include grace, and unity in diversity.
Analysis – “Characters,” Actions and Words:
This isn’t a narrative text, so the close reading technique of identifying the different characters and the verbs attached to them seems like it would be less then helpful. But even in a text like this that exercise helps focus our attention on some interesting things. Because there are some characters in the text: “I,” “you-all,” “we” or “each of us” or “all of us,” “God,” “Christ.” It might even be fair to say that “reality” is a character, in this sense – at least, the text spends some quality time describing the state of reality, in its remarkable unity in some significant respects (vv4-6, “there is one body and one Spirit, … one hope … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God …”).
In this text, God (v6) doesn’t perform any actions, God just is, in a relationship to everyone (“Father of all”), and in prepositional relationship to everyone and everything (above, through, and in).
The character “I” does exactly one action: begging. “I” begs “you-all” to live in a particular way, which “I” proceeds to describe in detail (humbly, gently, patiently, forbearingly, lovingly, …). “I” also places the effort to lead this life in the context of something done by Christ, who is related to the community of “you-all” in a special way.
But “I” is also a “prisoner in the Lord.” The “bond of peace” that holds “you-all” in the unity of the Spirit comes from the same Greek root as “prisoner.” Later, the author mentions that Christ made “captivity itself a captive” – a different word, but the same idea of being held by someone/something. So in a play on words, “I” – who seems to be a literal prisoner – is also a prisoner in the Lord together with “you-all,” and everyone else who is caught up in the “bond of peace” that was created when Christ made captivity itself a captive.
We think of the kind of “bonds” that hold someone in “bondage” as something negative. But if we are trying to fix a broken toy or a broken bone, getting the “bond” to hold is what we want. This double meaning of “bonds” seems to be built into this text.
Related to the “bonding,” the image of “joining” comes up in v16, when the body is “joined and knit together” by ligaments. The body is “equipped” with the ligaments that do this joining, and earlier, in v12, we learned that the work of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is to “equip” the saints (people who are set apart) for the “work of ministry,” work which seems to be the work of “building up” the [one] body of Christ. Perhaps the apostles, prophets, etc. equip the saints by serving as the ligaments by which the body is equipped [this makes a lot of sense to me], the tough but flexible tissue that connects one part to another. This would help make sense of why the author mentions “being tossed to and fro” and “blown about by every wind of doctrine” in v14. It would make the contrast between a body with good, strong ligaments and a body with loose or missing ones. [I think of what happened to our daughter when she tore her ACL. The absence of that ligament caused instability and pain. It kept her from participating in sports until it could be repaired and rehabilitated. The metaphor seems to fit.]
“You-all” and “we” are the main subjects of verbs. A couple are passive; “you-all”/”we” have been called, and have been given grace and gifts. The others are imperatives: actions “you-all”/”we” are begged or exhorted or encouraged to take: leading a worthy life, bearing with each other, making an effort, maintaining the connection to the Spirit, coming to unity, speaking the truth in love, growing up into Christ. Living.
The verb used in v13 specifically refers, in Greek, to coming down from a highland to the coast, or coming from the sea to the shore, unless it means coming down to someone like an inheritance. In any case, it suggests “coming down” to a destination. This makes the unity of “faith” and “knowledge of the Son of God” not like mountain heights, but like foundational starting points.
And this coming [down] to also echoes the descending that Christ does in vv9-10. According to the author, there’s no ascending before descending, and it’s the entire movement that precedes Christ’s giving of grace and gifts, that allows Christ to fill all things [the way God is through all and in all, and perhaps the way the Spirit fills the body]. Coming to the measure of the stature of Christ (v13) involves the kind of descending that Christ did, which was a kind of “grounding” and sharing in a common earthly condition that forms the basis (base-is) for unity.
One implication seems to be that in this text doctrine and organization – represented by the “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers” – is thoroughly practical stuff. It’s the [metaphorical] connective tissue that holds the body’s working parts together as they exercise. The verb that’s translated as “knit together” also carries connotations of reaching the same conclusion as others by thought or by demonstration and proof. Then the “whole body” “promotes the body’s growth” (v16), getting its energy and its sinews from Christ, as well as its goal. What’s translated into English as “each part working properly” is, in Greek, something like “working according to the individual measure” of each part, an echo of the measure of Christ’s grace and stature. And mostly, the contents of this connective tissue are grace, trust, and knowing Christ.