Ephesians 1-2: Our Misreading

Many, many Christians have read and been encouraged by Ephesians 1 and 2. It is here we get the Reformation battlecry "sola fide," "faith alone",  from Ephesians 2:8 ("For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— "). It is here that our reformed brothers and sisters (those Christians who lean more Calvinist/Augustinian) hammer the language of being "chosen": "just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world... He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will" (Eph. 1:4). This verse alone has sparked numerous late-night conversations at Denny's as to God's will, free will, the Matrix, robots, automatons, determinism and fixed history.

But I would suggest that Western Christianity has not been true to this text. As with almost all things we have turned this text, Ephesians 1-2, into Paul telling us about salvation for the individual. This text is not about individuals and salvation nor is it about individual salvation.

First things first: Paul rarely, if ever, wrote works of theology. That is not to say that Paul's letters weren't theological, but this was not Paul's main intent. Paul wrote letters to fix problems. He was a busy missionary with a tent making business on the side, fighting off starvation, natural disasters, and violent persecution. Letters often took days, weeks and sometimes months to craft with an estimated cost being far higher than we would imagine (possibly thousands of dollars in today's currency). Paul is not writing because he wants to but because he feels he has to. There is a need and he is addressing it.

So what is Paul talking about in Ephesians 1-2. Two very prominent themes start to emerge very quickly: (1) the cosmic Christ and (2) the Gentile inclusion into the family of God.

Right off the bat we see Paul painting Christ with strokes that are a bit unique. This isn't going to be about Jesus in Nazareth preaching and teaching. This is going to be about the eternal Christ, risen, ascended and exalted, who exists forever in both directions. Some scholars have termed this representation of Jesus as the "cosmic Christ." Paul speaks of "heavenly places" (1:3, 20 & 2:6), "fullness of time" (1:10), "ages to come" (2:7). These are just the phrases relating to time. When you read Ephesians 1:1-2:10 look at the prose that Paul uses, it is high and "flowery."

What does that mean? Paul is painting a picture of God working in Christ that is outside of time and space. The work of Christ was done for the purposes of God so that "with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will" (1:8-9). Paul is appealing to the work of Christ from eternity. He is pointing to some high truth and it would seem that his problem is really big.

So what is the problem? Paul is building an argument, climbing higher and higher, about the work of the eternal Christ. Everything Christ is doing was planned from the beginning of time and was the ultimate work of God in the world. The key to Ephesians 1-2 is 2:11-22. Verse 11-12 tells us who Paul is talking to: "you Gentiles." Paul is talking to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish believers. If we fail to discover the interlocutor (the person/people in the conversation), then we fail to find the meaning of the passage.

This passage, Ephesians 1-2, is not about your or my salvation. It is about the full inclusion of the Gentiles into the community of faith through Christ. When Paul says, "just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world... He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will" (Eph. 1:4), he is not talking about God foreknowing who was going to be saved and who was going to hell. Instead, Paul is assuring the Gentiles that is was always, from the beginning of the world, God's plan to bring the Gentiles into the fold of God. Likewise, being saved by grace through faith is not necessarily theology to an individual (not in the least because all the "you's" are plural) but because this is a statement about how the Gentiles are included. The Gentiles are not included because of their superiority to the Jews or anyone else, but because of Christ and their faith in him.

So, you should be asking, if this passage is all about the Gentile inclusion and not about me, what can I take from this passage for my spiritual edification? How do I teach this passage? We will flesh this out in part 2.

Until then read Ephesians 1-2 with a lens of inclusion of the Gentiles and not about our salvation. Here are some key verses:
  • "In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory" (1:13-14).
    • The coming of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles as a sign of salvation (Acts 2, 8-10, 15, etc.)
    •  Receiving the gospel/salvation as inheritance, which makes them part of God's own people.
  • Pay careful attention to the cornerstone of the chapters: Ephesians 2:11-22.

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