Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ephesians 1-3 and the Gentile Inclusion

Some question arose from my first post to why and how I believed that Ephesians 1-2 (and now I am including chapter 3) is about the inclusion of the Gentiles and not about our individual salvation. Firstly I would like to say that I affirm individual salvation, I just don't find the author of Ephesians discussing the nature of our individual salvation.

Secondly, this post is long and a little more heady than I intended this series to be. The next post is going to be my ideas on how to teach this text appropriately for the church in this modern context. Stay tuned. Hopefully the summary just below explains what it is I am trying to work through in this post.

Summary of contents
  • In the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul is writing to a mostly, if not exclusively, Gentile audience.
  • He is not writing about individual salvation, but about how Christ brings the Gentiles into God's covenant/people. This conclusion is come to from 3 major sections:
    • Ephesians 1 - Paul talks about the work of Christ as revealing the mystery of God.
    • Ephesians 2 - Paul talks about the cross of Christ uniting both Jew and Gentile into one body.
    • Ephesians 3 - Paul reveals what the revelation was he received from God, tells us what the mystery is that Christ reveals, and a major implication of what the gospel is: the inclusion of the Gentiles as "fellow-heirs" as the people of God.

It clear that Paul is writing to a largely, or even solely, a Gentile audience based on passages like 2:11and 3:1:
  • 2:11: "you Gentiles"
  • 3:1: "This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles..."
In case you are wondering what a "Gentile" is, according to the Jews there were Jews and then there was everyone else: "everyone else" = the Gentiles. Besides the verses above, we know a little about the location of Ephesus, a huge city in the Roman empire, and also every time Paul speaks about the Jews in this letter, he speaks in the third person and fairly negatively (see 2:11-22).

Andrew Lincoln backs up this claim when he says, "Somewhat more specifically, in terms of their ethnic background, these Christian readers who are apart of the universal Church are Gentiles. This identification is made explicit in the way they are addressed in 2:11 and 3:1, in the depiction of their past as religiously deprived in comparison with that of Israel (2:11-13), and in the reference to their past Gentile lifestyle in 4:17. It is also explicit in the way that past is described in 2:1-3 and in the view of their relationship to Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles which underlies the digression of 3:2-13” (Lincoln, Andrew T. Ephesians. (Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1990), p. lxxvi).

Lincoln goes on to say,
--> “A further question that arises is why the writer apparently only addresses Gentile Christians. Were there only Gentile Christians in the churches addressed? Or could it be that the writer is not addressing whole churches in a particular locality but only Gentile Christian members of them or perhaps Gentile Christian house churches? What was the relationship of the recipients to Jewish Christians? Again, the letter itself gives the contemporary reader no help in answering such questions. One can only agree with Dahl’s assessment (HTR 79 [1986] 36-37) that ‘if there were Christians of Jewish origins among the addressees the author takes no account of them’ and that ‘the author of Ephesians had a keen interest in the relationship of his audience to contemporary Jews in or outside the church’” (Lincoln, p. lxxxiv).
Why Lincoln is able to ask these questions when the Ephesian text very clearly addresses the letter to the Church in Ephesus (1:1) is because the earliest papyrus piece (Chester Beatty) and two of our earliest and most reliable manuscripts (Vatican and Sinaitis) that we have of this text do not address this letter to the Ephesians. To make matters more confusing, for a while this text was believed to be a letter to the Laodiceans (Marcion, et al.). In this final canonical form, it would come to be believed to be addressed to the Ephesians, possibly because of a Laodicean apostasy (luke warmeness as mentioned in Rev. 3) or possibly because it actually was addressed to the Ephesians. F. F. Bruce claims that it was written to many churches in Asia Minor and not Ephesus alone. We don't know but this is the text we have, with the addressees we have. Either way, scholars agree that the author of this letter is addressing the Gentile believers in Christ.

Markus Barth states a Gentile audience very plainly, "The following thesis will be proposed for consideration: the apostles Paul himself wrote this epistle to the Ephesians from a prison in Rome toward the end of his life. Paul addresses not the whole church in Ephesus but only members of Gentile origin..." (Barth, Markus. Ephesians. Introduction, Translation and Commentary on Chapters 1-3. (New York: Doubleday, 1974), pp. 3-4).

Most authors just state it matter of factly as an assumed truth, like Thielman, "Since Paul wrote the letter to Gentile Christians..." (Thielman, Frank. Ephesians. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2010), p. 16.

According to Acts 18-20, we do know that Ephesus had a Jewish synagogue but Paul (and Apollos) were relatively unsuccessful in their mission to the Jews both here and most everywhere. As evidenced by the Gentile uprising against Paul, it is fair to say that they were far more successful in the conversion of Gentiles (see the scene where the idol maker gets mad about the loss of business and the citizens of Ephesus shout about the greatness of Artemis for hours Acts 18:23-41).

Knowing the audience of this text, how does this change how we understand the nature of the salvation in which Paul is discussing?

First, Paul gives us a clue in the reoccurrence (a word that occurs multiple times) of the word "mystery." The key to this is 1:3-10 and 3:1-12:
  • "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (1:3-10).
    • Notice that Paul is using many time elements here as noted by italics. By doing so, Paul is building an argument that actually eliminates time from the cosmic scope of what God is doing IN CHRIST. This phrase, "In Christ," occurring 5-6 times as noted by the underlined, is actually the center of God's action in the cosmos, "in heaven and things on earth." It is the locus of our, the Church's, and all of creation's salvation.
    • Finally, see the connection between God's action in Christ, salvation, and the revelation of mystery as noted in bold. This salvation, as outlined in this passage, does not reflect an individual scope but a cosmic scope ("all things"). But Paul will make clear what he is specifically talking about in chap. 3.
  • "This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him." (3:1-12).
    • See again the time elements (underlined). Paul is arguing from outside of time from "revelation" received "by the Spirit." He is speaking about a mystery (bold) that is worked out in Christ.
    • AND WHAT IS THE MYSTERY AS OUTLINED IN CHAPTER 1 AND THIS PERICOPE??? "the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel."
Salvation, at least in this passage, is not being discussed at the individual level but at the corporate level. Moreover, the mystery from beyond all ages but that was always the plan of God "before the foundation of the world" was the inclusion of the Gentiles into the fold of God.

The theology for the inclusion of the Gentiles gets worked out most in Ephesians 2:11-22:
  • "So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God."
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Summary of below:
The Law created hostility between Jews and Gentiles but Jesus Christ, in his flesh and death, abolished the law to make one body out of the two, which has become one family, a temple of God. The Gentiles were estranged from God because of their flesh as being the wrong ethinicity. The Jews were the only ones close to God because of their flesh (circumcision). Jesus, circumcised and estranged from God in his flesh by his death on the Christ, comprises both groups and turns them into one new humanity.


(v. 11-12) So then, remember…
Paul, here, is reminding the Gentiles where they came from and the persecution they endured. The Gentiles were defined by their uncircumcision in juxtaposition to the Jews. It is here that Paul begins his attack on the Law in that he reduces circumcision to a purely physical act, “made in the flesh by human hands,” as if to distant the ritual from God. But this uncircumcision meant a great host of problems: they were without Christ.

Paul is seemingly anachronistic here by inferring that being without Christ means to not be in the “commonwealth of Israel.” There is almost an equivocation of having Christ and being Israel. As we will soon see, this is not the case. Either way, being without Christ is being without the means to reconciliation to God of Israel. For without Christ the Gentiles are aliens from God, without a home, without hope, without a covenant of promise, and ultimately without God. Paul wants them to remember their sense of homelessness and godlessness. The Gentiles were separated from the people of faith by their uncircumcision. Paul wants them to remember that there were two people, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, the Jews and the Gentiles, and the Gentiles were on the losing side. This division, or “hostility,” is centered on the lawful requirement of circumcision, which puts the law into sharp focus.

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(V. 13-14a) But now in Christ Jesus…
Jesus is undoubtedly the center of action and salvation. It is by Jesus’ death and blood that the Gentiles have been brought near.  This nearness implies a sense of “not all the way” but this may be employed in a sense of climax and build up.  Christ has become the peace of the Gentiles. Peace, here, being set-up to be in tension with the sense of hostility between Jew and Gentile but also in the salvific sense between God the Father and the Gentiles. These two reconciliations aren’t unrelated.

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(14b – 16) in his flesh he has made both groups into one…
It is here where Paul begins to speak in the third person. Up until now he has been speaking to Ephesian Gentiles in the second person, reminding them of the problems that the Gentiles endured with a personal tone. Paul applies the work of Christ to these Gentiles, but only in brief. Starting here he will undertake an impersonal theological discussion of the work of Christ in the reconciling of people groups to God and to one another.

Christ is sill in the forefront here. It is in Christ’s flesh that he has made the two groups, Jews and Gentiles, one. It is unclear whether “flesh" refers to Jesus’ teaching and ministry or another term for the death of Christ on the cross carried over from v. 13 and anticipating v. 16. Either way, it should strike an allusion back to v. 11 where the Gentiles are reminded that they are Gentiles by “flesh” and the Jews are circumcised by the “flesh” of human hands. Jesus has taken on the same flesh of both groups, born a Jew and circumcised on the eighth day (Lk. 2:21) and yet was seemingly far off from God and Israel in his death. It is in the common flesh of both groups that Jesus reconciles both groups into one body, one people.

Jesus has made one people by breaking down the dividing wall. This word literally means “fence” or “partition.” Much has been made about its referent but most, if not all, of the arguments are uncompelling. Either way, Jesus destroys the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, and judging by the context, it would seem to be the Law. Circumcision is placed as the central point of tension and hostility almost immediately in this pericope with a reduction of circumcision to something (merely) done by human hands. The next verse will clearly outline Jesus’ destruction of the Law and the place this holds in the two becoming one.

V. 15 very clearly states that Jesus makes useless the law. Though the word “abolish" is completely in line with the Greek boundaries, it may be a poor choice for an English translation as it immediately calls to mind Jesus’ great introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and the reframing of the Law. Jesus clearly says, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill” (5:17). The “abolish” that Jesus uses in Matthew is about “overthrowing,” “tearing down,” and “destroying” where Jesus, in Eph. 2:15, is doing something slightly different, at least etymologically. The term abolish in this verse refers more to “rendering something ineffective” or “nullifying,” “to make something useless.” There isn’t a destroying or an overthrowing as much as invalidating the law.

This verse, here in Ephesians, is still no small matter. Clearly Paul has in mind the invalidation of the whole Law. Many will try to reduce the words here in v. 15 to rituals and ordinances, as though these were somehow extras not apart of the whole law. To some Christians this is acceptable because Jesus seemingly does away with ritual food and cleanliness laws in the Gospels (Mark 7, etc.). The phrase in this verse suggests not a particularization of the law (i.e. just the “commandments and ordinances”) but the Law in totality.

This is evidenced further by Paul’s ecclesiological statement that Christ took “both groups” and made them “into one.” There is not a sense of Gentiles being added to the community of faith, but one part of many being made into a new thing. This community of faith, the Church, is now the temple of God, usurping any role of the Jewish temple in this new community’s life and work (v. 21). The community itself, the body of Christ, is the new temple of the Lord and the Gentiles are being absorbed into that. The greater context of eternity makes this clearer. The Gentiles have always been chosen to be part of the community of faith. It was impossible under the Old Covenant ruled by the Law. Now, in Christ of whom the Gentiles were always destined to be adopted as children of God, the Gentiles can finally be absorbed into the family of God.

At the very least, it is interesting to note that, in this passage Paul climaxes the work of Christ in efforts to make a community. The work of Christ, here, is primarily about building a church and not about our individual salvation. Christ's death on the cross was to bring the Gentiles in and not about individual justification.

(Vv. 17-22)
Verse 17 begins the decent from the Chiasm and the section where the author picks back up the second person. In verses 11-13 Paul speaks to the Gentiles directly. Verse 14 Paul includes, at least, himself if not all of the Jewish Christians with the first person plural. 14b-16, Paul speaks in the third person about the Jews and Gentiles as one body. In this section, 17-22, Paul speaks directly to the Gentiles again, applying the message of 14b-16 directly to the Ephesian Gentile Christians.

This whole section could be seen as a Chiasm. 11-14a is roughly the first half. 14b-16 is the middle section, and 17-22 is the final section. The diagram below may help see what is happening:


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This diagram shows that Paul is entering into a repetition for a reason. Paul begins by enumerating the problems caused by the law in build up to the abolishing of the law. It is circumcision and the flesh that has caused the great hostility between the groups. When we get to the point of the chiasm, the law comes into focus as the culprit for the division between the two groups. This is where Christ abolishes the law and hostility in his own flesh so that through his death we may enter into the spiritual realm and truth. It is through Christ that peace is extended. It is easy to see the repetition of “stranger” and “far off” and “peace.” 

Where the chiasm serves the greatest importance is the way it fleshes out Paul’s contrasting of flesh and the spirit. For the circumcision and the Gentiles were based in flesh. In the death of Christ’s flesh, so too did the law (symbolized in the circumcision) and the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Now, the Gentiles have access to the Father “through the Spirit.” The community of faith constitutes a “spiritual” temple of the Lord. The circumcision (of flesh) is being directly juxtaposed with the spiritual reality of God’s temple composed of both Jews and Gentiles.

John Stott begins his work on Ephesians by saying, "Measured by this standard, it has to be admitted that many of our formulations of the good news are defective. One our chief evangelical blind spots has been to overlook the central importance of the church. We tend to proclaim individual salvation without moving on to the saved community. We emphasize that Christ dies for us 'to redeem us from all iniquity' rather than 'to purify for himself a people of his own'. We think ourselves more as 'Christians' than as 'churchmen', and our message is more good news of a new life than of a new society. Nobody can emerge from a careful reading of Paul's letter to the Ephesians with a privatized gospel. For Ephesians is the gospel of the church. IT sets forth God's eternal purpose to create through Jesus Christ a new society which stands out in bright relief against the sombre background of the old world. For God's new society is characterized by life in place of division and alienation..."(
Stott, John R. W. God's New Society: The Message of Ephesians. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1979), p. 9).

Though O'Brien wants to leave open room for individual salvation as an option for interpretation of these chapters in Ephesians, he ultimately says, "Cosmic reconciliation and unity in Christ are the central message of Paul's letter to the Ephesians" (O'Brien, Peter Thomas. The Letter to the Ephesians. (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1999), p. 58).

As to the "we"/"us" passages, this matter is ambiguous if not mysterious. Whereas Paul reveals a mystery of the inclusion of the Gentiles, he leaves up a literary mystery as to whom the "we"/"us" really is.
  • First, Paul's authorship is in question, even by the most conservative of scholars. Even F. F. Bruce says that this is not from Paul's own hand. Though I tend to "side with the accused," as my brilliant Pauline professor sometimes said, I think it may be too much of an assumption assume that this is Paul and therefore the "we"/"us" passages are inclusions of the Jews. I am not saying that this isn't Paul writing, but I do think it may not be a foundation to build a house on.
  • Second, scholars are divided about these passages. One will say that these "we"/"us" passages allow us to make inferences about all of humanity, some say they are sometimes directed to Gentiles and Jew specifically (Barth). Ernest Best says, "The whole question of the use of the 'we' and 'you' in Ephesians is complex. If we assume, probably correctly, that the letter is addressed to Gentile Christians, does this mean that when the author uses the second person plural their Gentile nature is uppermost in his mind or is it simply used because they are being addressed and the second person plural is the only possible construction? We cannot attempt here to give an overall answer to this question for the letter as a whole. Indeed a satisfactory answer can only be evolved as each use of the use of the first and second person plural is separately examined, for usage may vary from text to text" (Best, Ernest. Essays on Ephesians. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), p. 76). 
Ultimately I will admit that in matters of interpretation there will always be multiple hypothesis as to the meaning of the passage. If it were cut and dry then there would be no debate. At the very least, Ephesians presents us with a case for a very important role for the Church in the life of the believer and in the role of Christ's eschatological plan. At most, we have to say that these chapters are about corporate salvation for the Gentiles into the community of God. Either way my hope would be that we could agree that the reconciling ministry of Christ, making one people where there was division, is a prominent theme in these chapters and one the church needs to focus on more, over and against simply a personal salvation.


Edit: I stated that F. F. Bruce doubted the authorship of Paul for the letter to the Ephesians. Upon a second reading of his work "The Letter to the Ephesians" (pp. 11-12), under the section about the author of Ephesians, I have since come to the conclusion that Bruce was being ambiguous at best. The line I read from Bruce that caused me to write that he denied Pauline authorship was, "The writer, presumably one of Paul's disciples, endeavoured to give an exposition of Paul's central teaching and to convey it as far as possible in language borrowed from Paul's own writing" (p. 11). He then adds a footnote to this line pointing to greater works on this line of thought.

The reason I said that he was ambiguous, and therefore maybe not advocating for another author besides Paul, comes from this line, "The author, if it was not Paul himself, has carried the apostle's thinking to its logical conclusion, beyond the point where the apostle stopped, and has placed the capping-stone on the massive structure of Paul's teaching. Of such a second Paul early Christian history has no knowledge" (p. 12). Re-reading it he could be being sarcastic and I mis-spoke, but he never explicitly says Paul wrote it and spends most of the authorship section talking about a second author.

Most scholars do question the authorship of Ephesians.

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