We’re continuing our study of Ephesians with Ephesians 2:1-10, an uncompromising statement of “salvation by grace through faith.” Some questions on the text are here. Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: These are the very next verses in the letter, after what we’ve read the past couple of weeks. So, everything we already know about the basic letter applies:
- maybe to the church in Ephesus, or maybe to a cluster of early Christian churches in Asia Minor;
- maybe not by Paul, but rather a Pauline disciple – or else, a Paul whose ideas have developed some beyond the undisputed epistles;
- maybe a little later than some of the other letters, maybe as late as 80-85 CE (although that would mess with the rule I used to give my students, “all the letters are older than any of the gospels,” which is a pretty nice rule).
We might want to refresh our memory about what the author has been saying to the recipients. In particular, we might want to recall that the “saints” who are faithful in Christ Jesus, the recipients of this letter, have been told, or perhaps reminded, that they are “destined for adoption” by the will of God, which brings a long list of important benefits (Ephesians 1:7-14 – redemption, forgiveness, knowledge, a new way of life, inheritance, the Holy Spirit). The author is praying for them to receive a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” in the course of coming to know God more fully, which will plus out their understanding of their hope, calling, inheritance, and the power “at work in us,” or “at work in us who believe.”
There is going to be a contrast made between the way God is at work in the saints (which we see explicitly in chapter 1, and have detailed in chapter 2) and the way other forces are at work in the world (which we see in our verses this week).
Our verses will provide a condensed recap, a “before and after” story that describes the saints’ situation. That will be elaborated further in Ephesians 2:11-22, which focuses on how the new condition unifies the Gentiles and the other saints. (As I read it, the original saints or holy ones) – makes them all members of the one divine household. Chapter 3 continues the description of the effects of this inclusion, by grace, in the household of God, effected by the working of God’s indescribable power.
Then, chapters 4-6 move into the behavioral consequences of this new condition: the need for a new form of life, quite different from the gentiles’ old form of life, and one which really reflects the nature of Christ, which they now share.
These verses are one of the lectionary’s options for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (B), but they’re in competition with Numbers 21:4-9, which is dramatic, and John 3:14-21, which is iconic, so we might be excused for wondering how often this text actually surfaces in church. [Although I preached on it last Sunday … but I don’t always stick with the lectionary.]
CLOSER READING: “You” (pl.) in verses 1-10 starts off dead – having walked and kept busy with the “ways of the world” – seriously dead (the adjective repeats in v5, ending the first half). Then, in the next verses, God acts, and you-all are saved (twice), and created by God for good workings to walk in. So, the movement from death through salvation to (new) creation and walking in goodness structures the movement of these 10 verses.
God‘s activity springs from great love with which God loved us. V4 stresses God’s mercy and love.
In vv5-6, there are three verbs, compound words in Greek. Each begins with the prefix ”syn” – together. All three are actions done by God. Together-alive-made; together-raised; together-seated. Translations incorporate “us,” which seems to be implied, but in Greek the focus is exclusively on what God is doing. God is incorporating us into what God is doing in Christ.
V7 focuses on God’s future plans: to show surpassing riches of grace in kindness toward us in Christ.
There is a lot of working going on, starting in the preceding chapter, when God’s surpassing power is working for us. Now, the power of the air is the spirit working in those who refuse to believe. That obstinate refusal seems to be the core meaning of the word translated “disobedience” here. Then, in v9, we’re told works don’t produce salvation. But, good works are the pre-prepared way in which the newly-created children of God are meant to walk. So there’s a striking contrast between the kinds of powers at work in different contexts, and the function of works that humans can do – what they’re good for.
The ruler of the power of the air probably sounds like the Evil One to many readers. I am always reminded of a sermon I heard a long time ago, in which the preacher equated the “power of the air” with, in essence, popular cultural assumptions – what we learn just from living in our culture. I find that understanding very persuasive. Those two readings might not be mutually exclusive, of course.
In v10, where the NRSV translates with a whole phrase (we are “what he has made us”), Greek has a noun, that means essentially “something made by creative activity,” so we are “his handiwork” or “his artwork” or “his fabrication.” His poem.
Image: St. Paul mosaic, photographed by Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons