St. Paul mosaic

Studying Ephesians 1 15-23

We’re continuing with Ephesians this week, moving on to the end of chapter 1, verses 15-23. This is our second of four weeks looking at this late first century CE letter, which emphasizes grace and the abundant blessings the saints have in Christ, and then what that means when it comes to living daily life. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this week’s text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Keeping in mind what we know about Ephesians, the book – not a great deal:

  • a disputed Pauline letter, maybe written by a disciple of Paul’s;
  • many think late in the first century, around 80-85 CE – and maybe the main thing about that is that Christians are beginning to work at understanding what it means that Christ’s return looks like it will be later rather than sooner;
  • some textual evidence that the original version of the letter was not specifically to Ephesus, but to “the saints,” so, maybe a more general letter to churches in Asia Minor – again, maybe the main significance of that for us is that the letter deals with general or widespread concerns, not as much specific problems going on in a single location or congregation.

There is a lot of hyperbolic language in Ephesians – literally “hyperbolic,” actually – about the riches of God and God’s grace and Christian life. We see a lot of that in our verses this week.

Theologically, people mention Ephesians’ “realized eschatology.” “Realized eschatology” is, as I understand it, the view that “the divine future is now.” If Christians are perpetually working within an “already-not yet” framework when it comes to seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises, which seems accurate, then the author of Ephesians emphasizes the “already” side of that dialectic. [There’s a worthwhile article on that here, if you can get past the sneering references to “liberal” theologians – unless, of course, you enjoy those.] We might see some of that realized eschatology in our verses.

Ephesians certainly includes some of the strongest Biblical statements we have on grace. Once again, this helps explain the “predestination” or “election” or “chosen” language that also appears in the text, which came up for discussion last week. [Grace and predestination are in a relationship, logically. Just sayin.]

This week’s verses are in the lectionary, as options for All Saints’ (C), for Ascension every year, and for Reign of Christ (A). So, chances are pretty good folks will even have heard them in church, even though they are a little heady.

CLOSER READING: We might want to notice that our author [whom I’ll continue to call “Paul”] starts out commending the recipients’ [whom I’ll continue to call “the Ephesians”] faith in Christ and love for the saints, or “holy ones.” Faith arguably has at least as much to do with trust here as it does with believing some specific cognitive content. The saints, we keep thinking, are those chosen in Christ and being sanctified by their life in the community.

Most of the verses say what Paul prays for these saints.

First of all, thanks – the usual eucharistic language. And then petitions: that God will give things to them, in particular a spirit of wisdom and of revelation.

We will have different ideas about what precisely this might mean depending on what we think “spirit” language means here. Maybe the Holy Spirit is the spirit of wisdom and of revelation. Maybe there are many spirits, and Paul wants them to receive these specific spirits. Maybe the “spirit” referred to is an inner personal disposition that accounts for a person’s characteristic choices in life – what’s behind the fact that we can walk into a room and say “I can feel Aunt Hattie’s spirit in this room,” presumably based on the way the room has been decorated and lived in by that person. So, an inner personal disposition to wisdom – discernment – and revelation – insight, seeing things one didn’t see before, or seeing things in new and more accurate ways.

This spirit is a consequence or gift of coming to know God (v17).

The verb translated “enlightened” in v18, which sounds rather cerebral and Buddhist to me, could be used for light or rays of light shining and lighting something up. Technically, yes, “enlightened,” but in a really concrete way. The eyes of your hearts. Let’s just meditate on that.

Paul wants these eyes to perceive hope, riches (of an inheritance), and power.

So, now that we’ve identified those grammatical objects, we can go back and fill in their descriptions. They’ve been called to this hope; or, perhaps, having been called, there’s hope in that having been called.

The inheritance is glorious, it has glory – weight, light, nobility. The inheritance belongs to Him, or is perhaps the inheritance of Him. It’s “in the saints,” so either the saints inherit these riches, or else the saints constitute the rich inheritance, or both.

The immeasurable greatness of His power is literally “hyperbolic,” that is, it’s the word that gave us our word “hyperbole.” And that is, “going [way] beyond” the usual standard. This is presumably how the NRSV came up with immeasurable – hyperboles go off to infinity, mathematically, or at least to exaggeration, rhetorically.

There are three distinct words for “power” used here, the dynamic kind, the might kind, and the strength kind.

Where one chooses to put a comma changes the meaning of the sentence; there are no commas in Greek, so we have to make a choice. It makes sense to me to translate “… what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us, those believing according to the operation of his mighty strength [the might of his strength], which he has put to work in Christ, having raised him out of death and set at his right hand …”

That is to say, faith is an outcome of the operation of the surpassingly great power of God’s mighty strength. We might be inclined to say, “the gracious operation” thereof. That’s how I read it.

Then, if the eyes of our hearts have enough light to see that, we will not give ourselves too much credit for the faith we already have, and we will keep turning towards God for more.

Verse 21 gives us four distinct words for being in charge of things: we translate rule, authority, power (same word as the divine power that is surpassingly great), and lordship or “dominion” in NRSV. Then, every name that is named – we might here think of magical invocations, perhaps. “By Jove, …” etc.

V22 maps out a vertical hierarchy taken from the human body: head to feet, head-high-over-boss, feet-low-under-bossed. Jesus rules.

In v23, the fullness translates a word that in some other contexts (Matthew 9:16, Mark 2:21) shows up as “patch” – a patch being something used to “fill in” a gap, evidently. Normally, it seems to mean more what we might visualize as liquid in a cup, or leftovers in a basket. But I’m fascinated by the idea of the church as spackle.

Image: Paul mosaic, Casa de Convalescència, Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

3 responses to “Studying Ephesians 1 15-23”

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