St. Paul mosaic

Studying Ephesians 1 1-14

Our text this week is Ephesians 1:1-14. It’s the opening to Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus. Unless it’s not, whether because the author is someone other than Paul, or because the letter wasn’t originally addressed to the church in Ephesus but to a cluster of churches, perhaps in Asia Minor, or because it’s less of a letter than it is something else, like a sermon or a prototype for worship, or for all of those reasons. Whoever wrote it, to whomever, it belongs to The Church and The Canon now. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: It’s been a while since we’ve studied any part of Ephesians; this time, we’re looking ahead to a series of four sessions, all in the context of reflections on “God’s exceptional choice.” Ephesians fits right in to this theme, as one of the prominent themes of this short book is God’s choice of “us” – the church – as “saints” or “holy ones,” “before the foundation of the world,” to be “holy and blameless before Him in love.” Adoption. Redemption. Incorporation into the family of God and body of Christ.

Maybe Ephesians was written by Paul. But in the introductions to our study Bibles, we consistently find out it’s one of the disputed letters, along with Colossians, with which it shares several notable characteristics. Long sentences. Unusual words. Unusual senses of more familiar words. Realized eschatology (we’re already blessed and seated with Christ in the heavenly places, for instance). All of which may mean Paul didn’t write it, or may mean Paul wrote it, but after having thought more after writing Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians.

Maybe it was written to the church in Ephesus. But there is evidence that it might not have been, originally.

Scholars’ best guesses seem to be that it’s composed rather late in the first century. Maybe 80-85 CE. So – a product of the ancient world, but maybe of a church that is growing to expect a longer stay on earth.

How does this matter? Mainly, perhaps, in that we probably don’t want to tie our understanding of Ephesians tightly & specifically to what we know about Ephesus, like that Timothy worked there or that there was a temple to Artemis of the Ephesians. We probably need to take the letter more on its face value, without good clues about author, audience, or contemporary concerns to shape our reading.

Ephesians 1:11-23 is this year’s epistle for All Saints Day; vv3-14 are the epistle every year for the second Sunday after Christmas, and the epistle for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B). So, churchgoers should have heard it some time in church, unless we’ve been on vacation EVERY time it came up.

CLOSER READING: Paul is an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and the will of God will be a recurrent motif in these verses (v5, v9, v11). God is the main actor, certainly; and God’s activity is extravagant and positive, blessing and choosing and destining and adopting us and lavishing on us the riches of his grace and repeatedly going over and above anything we might expect.

The audience is identified as the saints or the “holy ones” – which might make us think of Israel, and the call to the covenant people of God to be holy because God is holy. The themes of adoption and inclusion in a family might reinforce this.

As might the fact that in v11, the “inheritance” we’ve received is a word that could easily be translated as “allotment” – something obtained by lottery – a lot like the portions of land assigned to the tribes in the book of Joshua.

The term redemption, then, in this context, also starts to sound like a familial image – again, in the context of ancient Israelite practice, where the redeemer is an eligible relative (think Boaz, in Ruth, or the prophet Jeremiah buying the field in Anathoth).

In that connection, we might note that redemption like that in the Hebrew Bible doesn’t involve blood. But the Passover story does, so we might read v7 as a tying together of redemption and the idea of buying kinfolk out of bondage with liberation and Passover.

So by the time we get to v10, and realize that God’s “plan for the fullness of time” is the kind of plan the head of a household in the ancient world (an oikos) might be expected to develop, for the “administration” of that household, we may start to think that the author of Ephesians has ancient world family systems and family structures and family relationships seriously on his [we assume] mind. Maybe this foundational mental model will continue to serve as a template for the Christian life in the text of Ephesians …

Verses 3-14 begin with a call to bless God for all the blessings with which God has blessed us, and then are punctuated at intervals with references to the praise of God’s glory (vv12, 14) or God’s glorious grace (v6). So there’s a way in which these verses serve as an extended call to worship. We can see why some commentators say the text has features of a liturgy or a sermon.

[Recall, as well, that God is “enthroned on the praises of Israel.” This may be another instance of the author of Ephesians pointing out the Gentiles’ new identity, as adoptees into Israel, through Christ. As Amy-Jill Levine points out in her commentary on Ephesians, the author’s inclusive intent can only have a divisive impact, when considered from a first century Jewish perspective.]

Overall, we hear emphatically that participation in the community of those who are “faithful in Christ Jesus” is on purpose – a purpose established by the will of God before the foundation of the world. A lavishly gracious purpose. Meant to result in the praise of God’s glory.

Image: “St. Paul Mosaic,” Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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