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Ephesians, Theology of

Ephesians, Theology of

Pauline authorship of Ephesians does not appear to have been doubted in the early church. It is listed among Paul's letters in the early manuscripts and cited as such by early Christian authors such as Irenaeus (Against Heresies 5.2.3), Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis 4.65), and Tertullian (Against Marcion 5.11.17; 5.17.1). It is included among Paul's letters as the Muratorian Canon, which is generally regarded as second century, and acknowledged as Paul's even by the heretic Marcion, who called it "Laodiceans."

Ephesians contains a carefully reasoned and precisely worded theology presented in a systematic way. There is no letter in the Pauline corpus that more precisely and succinctly presents the rudimentary elements of his understanding of salvation history than this one.

To grasp fully the theological core of this letter, it is important to remember the nature of Paul's conversion/call on the road to Damascus. He was told at that time by the divine voice: "get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me'" ( Acts 26:16-18 ).

Paul's entire life after this experience was guided by this commission he had received to take the gospel as a Jew to the Gentiles ( Gal 1:15-16 ). He functioned somewhat as a priestly servant sent "to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit" ( Rom 15:16 ).

The key to the theology of Ephesians is the second chapter, where Paul sets forth the implications of the equal union of Jews and Gentiles in the one body, the church. Both Gentiles (v. 1) and Jews (vv. 3-5) were once dead in their trespasses and sins. Nevertheless, the Jews had prepared the way for the Messiah and were the first to be called into the church. The Gentiles have since been included, largely by Paul's own work, in keeping with divine forethought and election. God had promised Abraham that his seed would be a blessing to all the nations, and they must now be accepted fully as equal partners in the kingdom.

It if foundational to the theology of Paul, in Acts and in his generally accepted letters as well as in Ephesians, that both Gentiles and Jews are made alive together with Christ, have been raised up together, and made to sit together with Christ in the heavenly places (vv. 5-6). Thus, the Gentile disciples are fellow citizens with the Jewish disciples and members together with them of the household of God (v. 19).

The church, Paul argues, was built upon the Jewish foundation of apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the chief (Jewish) cornerstone ( 2:20 ; 3:5 ). The Gentiles have now been included and, being "joined together" with the Jewish foundation, they grow together into a holy temple in the Lord ( 2:20-21 ). Their daily moral and ethical conduct, which should be guided by this truth, is set forth in the last part of the letter (4:17-6:24).

A number of key theological terms and arguments in Ephesians revolve around these two concepts: (1) the historical and cosmological role of the Jews in God's redemptive history from the time of Abraham; and (2) Paul's own place in that process, that of bringing in the Gentiles as full participants in the kingdom, which evil forces in the cosmos conspired to prevent and thus to destroy the work of Christ.

There is a distinctive emphasis in Ephesians on Christ's exaltation above the heavens, his coronation at the right hand of God, and his subsequent cosmic lordship ( Ephesians 1:3-4 Ephesians 1:9-10 Ephesians 1:20-23 ; 2:6 ; 4:8-10 ). The cosmological nature of the church being the central emphasis of the theological section of the letter (chap. 1-4), the author felt no need to argue here for the resurrection of the body of Jesus and his believers, which is of eschatological but not cosmological import. He makes no mention of an imminent return of Christ but rather speaks of the church's role in manifesting the glory of Christ Jesus to all generations. Aspects of the church's conduct until Christ's return are delineated in chapters 5-6, as they are is in Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, and Thessalonians.

Israel as God's Elect. It is in the context of the role of Israel as the elect, the chosen, descended from Abraham to propagate the Messiah, rather than in the context of individual predestination to salvation, that Paul speaks of election. The first chapter asserts that the Jews, God's saints or holy ones, were "chosen" to bring the blessing of redemption to all nations in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. It was the Jews who were foreordained unto adoption for this purpose (v. 5), chosen in the beloved (Messiah) for God's glory, that is, to declare the sovereignty of monotheism, (v. 6), chosen before the foundation of the world to be "holy and blameless" (v. 4). They were the first to hope in the Messiah (v. 12).

The Specialized Application of Pronouns. Another key to understanding Ephesians is recognizing that in this book a Jewish author is writing to a Gentile audience. This is especially evident in Paul's discriminating use of first-person and second-person pronouns. Although most studies on Ephesians approach the letter by investigating its major theological terms and comparing their use in Paul's generally acknowledged letters, it is more likely that the thinking of an author (or redactor) will be found in those more commonly used parts of speech he employs at times almost subconsciously. These parts of speech may reflect the subconscious theological perspectives out of which an author or redactor formulates his doctrine and from which he expresses that doctrine. In this respect the pronouns in Ephesians provide a key to the theology of the book. If studied on the assumption of consistency in use, they reveal the thinking of the author in a way that allows us to draw important conclusions about the point of view from which he writes and therefore about his theology.

Paul consistently uses second-person pronouns in the letter in a specialized sense, that of addressing an exclusively Gentile Christian audience. The particularized use of the second-person pronoun in referring to Gentiles as the recipients of this letter is seen in 2:11, where he says: "remember that you who are Gentiles by birth and called uncircumcision." Again in 3:1 he writes: "I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles." However, unlike Romans, where Paul addresses his dual audience on the one hand as Jews "who know the law" ( 7:1 ) and then on the other as Gentiles ( 11:13 ), Paul never addresses Jews directly in Ephesians using the second-person pronoun.

First-person pronouns, like those in the second person, are also used in a number of different ways, both traditional and specialized. Their customary epistolary use in personal communication may be seen in 6:12. They are also used in liturgical material and confessional formulas. For example, in the greeting "Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ" ( 6:24 ) the pronoun is part of a standard expression and has no specialized reference.

Otherwise, the first-person plural pronouns, like the second-person pronouns, are used in a specialized way. In the first part of the letter, down to 2:3, they refer to Jews or Jewish Christians. At this point, following Paul's declaration of the inclusion of the Gentiles with the Jews, the first-person pronouns henceforth refer to Jews and Gentiles combined.

The significance of this pronoun use can be seen in the following example. After the epistolary greeting in 1:1-2, the Gentiles are not referred to until verse 13, where they are said to have been added to God's redemptive work among the Jews, who thus far have been designated by first-person plural pronouns. Paul then addresses the Gentile readers in verse 13 by saying "you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance."

Thus, the Jew and Gentile are differentiated by these pronouns down to the second chapter. Then in 2:1-5 , after the declaration that the Gentiles now have been brought together with the Jews into the body of Christ, the first-person plural pronouns henceforth refer to Jews and Gentiles together. The transition point is verse 3, where Paul concludes that "allof us [Jew and Gentile] also lived among them [the sons of disobedience]."

Thus, the first ten verses of chapter 2 may be paraphrased as follows: "You Gentiles were dead in your trespasses and sins (v. 1) just as we Jews were (v. 5), so we all shared the same guilt of sin (v. 3). But God has now forgiven us (Jew and Gentile alike) by his grace (vv. 6, 8), made us alive together with Christ, raised us up together and made us sit together with Christ in the heavenly places" (vv. 5-8).

Therefore, from this point on ( 2:3 ) the first-person plural pronouns include the Gentiles as well, who have been grafted as wild olive branches into the Jewish tree ( Rom 11:17-24 ) and are henceforth, like the Jews, included among the descendants of Abraham, "in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ, so that by faith we [Jew and Gentile] might receive the promise of the Spirit" ( Gal 3:14 ).

There are a number of significant occurrences of the first-person plural pronouns used in this inclusive way after 2:3, which further clarify the theology of the letter.

The first example and the most significant perhaps is in 2:5 where, following three compound verbs describing the uniting of Jews and Gentiles together in Christ ("made alive together, raised together, and made to sit together"sunezoopoiesen, sunegeiren [sunegeivrw], and sunekathisen), Paul states (v. 7) that God's rich grace is manifested toward us, the first-person plural pronoun now meaning Jew and Gentile together, who are declared to be his workmanship (v. 10).

These compound verbs furnish a key point in the theology of Ephesians. Most commentators on the Greek text argue that chapter 1 deals with what God has done for Christ and chapter 2 with what God has subsequently done for all believers. These three compound verbs in 2:5 are thus taken to indicate the twofold union of Christ and his believers.

However, all of them express difficulty in dealing with the first five verses of chapter 2 and none of them deals with the passage in the context of the thematic consistency of pronoun use or sees the implausibility of his position due to the demands of the three compound verbs. The compounds themselves do not refer to any union including ChristChrist and Jews, Christ and Gentiles, or Christ and Christians but to that of Jews and Gentiles. The Jews and Gentiles thus brought together, are then together, as an entity, united with Christ.

The use of compounds in this way occurs again in 3:6, where Paul says that the Gentiles are fellow heirs (sunkleronoma)fellow members of the body (sussoma) and fellow partakers (summetocha) of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

The second example of the special use of first-person plural pronouns is in 2:16-18 where Paul asserts that God has reconciled them both into one body and created of the two one new person. This statement of unification is then followed in verse 18 by a first-person plural construction referring to the result of that unity: "we both have access to the Father by one Spirit." The result is that the Gentiles are now "fellow citizens with God's people, " the Jews.

A third example is in 3:8, where Paul calls himself the "less than the least of all God's people (Jewish Christians)" who was given the commission to "preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ." This statement of Gentile inclusion is then followed again (as in 2:16 ) by the first-person "we, " (v. 12) signifying that we [both Jew and Gentile] can now approach God with freedom and confidence.

A fourth example may be found in 4:13, where it is stated that the work of God's people (Jewish Christians) in building up the body of Christ by including the Gentiles, will continue until we all attain unto the oneness of the faith. Then in verses 14 and 15, first-person plurals are used ("we will no longer be" and "we will grow up") referring to the newly created union of Jews and Gentiles who should no longer be babes but grow up in every way into him who is the head, even Christ. That "growing up" or reaching "maturity" is done by including the Gentiles.

If this analysis is correct, 2:3 is the transition point in the letter, with all the first-person pronouns from this point on referring to the union of Jews and Gentiles. Prior to this they refer to the Jews as a people or to Jewish Christians. The third verse is the decisive point, indicated by the phrase "we all" which appears also in 4:13, in both instances expanding the first-person pronoun references to Jews to include the Gentiles as well.

The Special Use of "God's People." A third key element in the theology of Ephesians is the differentiation between Jewish and Gentile Christians by the consistent use of the words "God's people" in reference to Jewish Christians. This designation of Jewish Christians as God's people occasionally occurs in special contexts in other Pauline literature as well.

That the author of Ephesians considers himself among God's people and that they are Jewish Christians is clear from 3:1, 8. In verse 1 he says "I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles" and in verse 8 he continues "I am less than the least of God's people." This distinction between Gentiles and saints is seen also in 3:18, where the text states: "in order that you (Gentiles) may have power together with all the saints" the greatness of God. It is significant that he does not say "with all the other saints." Further, the mystery in 1:9, which Paul says was made known to "us" (Jews), is identified in 3:3-5 as a revelation to God's people (Jews), that the Gentiles were to be fellow participants in God's eternal purpose.

The Role of Cosmic Powers. Another highly important element of the theology of Ephesians is the role of cosmic, demonic powers in the affairs of human activity. Paul emphatically asserts that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" ( 6:12 ).

His perspective is that Satan, who dwells in the region around the earth ( 2:2 ), is actively trying to destroy the unity of the church. The Christian warfare is with him, not with flesh and blood. By fostering disunity in the body of Christ, as he did in the history of Israel, he destroys its witness to the oneness of God ( 4:4-6 ), which it constantly seeks to make known through its unity, even to these principalities and powers in the heavenly places ( 3:10 ).

The celestial world was highly structured in the Hellenistic Jewish thought of Paul's time, having multiple heavens, usually seven in number, and containing both angels and demons. The major dogmas of Jewish Christianity were developed along cosmological lines, although they were concerned with Christology rather than cosmology, and used cosmological data simply as a medium of expression.

Paul speaks in Ephesians of multiple heavens, saying that Christ ascended "higher than all the heavens" ( 4:10 ). These heavenly places are not synonymous with "heaven" because they include not only God and Christ, but also Jewish and Gentile Christians, as well as demonic powers ( Ephesians 1:3 Ephesians 1:10 Ephesians 1:20 ; Ephesians 2:2 Ephesians 2:6 ; Ephesians 3:10 Ephesians 3:15 ; 4:10 ; Ephesians 6:9 Ephesians 6:12 ). Satan, the "ruler of the kingdom of the air" ( 2:2 ) dwells in a lower heaven around the earth known as the firmament in Jewish apocalyptic thought.

Concisely stated, the theology of Ephesians is that in the life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement of Jesus Christ, the church, which is his body, declares by its unity, the lordship of Jesus, not only over the church, but over the cosmos as well.

John McRay

See also Paul the Apostle

Bibliography. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Ephesians; idem, The New International Commentary on the New Testament; M. Barth, The Broken Wall: A Study of the Epistle to the Ephesians; F. Foulkes, The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians: An Introduction and Commentary; E. J. Goodspeed, The Key to Ephesians; idem, The Meaning of Ephesians; A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians; L. G. Mitton, Ephesians; B. F. Westcott, St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Ephesians, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.