Commentary on Ephesians 1:11-23
It is probably best to break the reading from Ephesians into two pieces: 1:11-14 and 1:15-23. Verses 11-14 are the second half of a single Greek sentence (the longest in the New Testament!) that begins at 1:3. This entire section is in the form of a blessing, praising God for God’s redeeming work in Christ. Verses 3-10 speak about Christ’s work in cosmic dimensions (for example, God is bringing all things in heaven and earth to their proper conclusion in Christ, 1:10). Verses 11-14 refocus the dimensions of God’s drama of salvation in Christ from the cosmic to the lives of specific believers.
One of the keys to understanding this section lies in how one understands the Greek verb that is translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “we have obtained an inheritance.” Although this is the only time this verb appears in the New Testament, this word, as well as similar language is used in the Septuagint and elsewhere in Greek to refer to being chosen by lots. You can see why the New Revised Standard Version would shift an image that seems to imply a random roll of the dice to one that implies being made an heir. This language of “allotment”, however, is used in Deuteronomy (4:20; 9:26, 29; 32:9) to speak of God’s choice of Israel to be God’s special possession. Paul employs an image reflecting God’s providential and preordained election of Israel to speak of believers’ relationship to Christ. As the rest of Ephesians makes clear, however, Paul does not think Israel’s status has been transferred to the church. Instead, through Christ, a largely Gentile church has been brought within God’s purposes for all creation as manifested through the calling of Israel.
The aim of such “allotting” is that Christian believers might live to the praise and glory of God (1:12). This is a stunning assertion and Paul refers to the substance of this claim as the “mystery” of God (1:9; 3:1-3). The fact of the Ephesians’ reception of the Holy Spirit serves to validate this assertion (1:13-14).
Ephesians 1:15-23 is also a single long sentence in Greek. The focus of the thanksgiving of 1:3-14 is God’s redemptive action in the world through Christ. This passage shifts the focus slightly to Paul’s desire to see the Ephesians grow in their wisdom and knowledge of God, so that having been incorporated into the body of Christ, they can continue to move toward their ultimate end in Christ.
Because it is a single Greek sentence, the entire passage is governed by the fact that much of its content is offered as a prayer that Paul offers to God on behalf of the Ephesians. The passage begins by Paul noting that he has heard of the Ephesians’ faith. As a result, he is driven to pray for them (1:15-17). Paul’s prayer is that through the revelatory power of the Spirit, the Ephesian Christians will come to a deeper knowledge of “the hope of God’s call;” and the “riches of the glory of God’s inheritance among the saints;” and the unsurpassed greatness of God’s resurrecting power. Based on 1:10-14, God’s call to believers would be to participate in the drama of redemption that is playing itself out now, but also awaits its full consummation in Christ. This is where the element of hope comes in. It is hope that a faithful God will bring all things into subjection to Christ.
The Old Testament regularly uses the image of Israel as God’s inheritance. Many of these instances narrate occasions when God has become separated from God’s inheritance. God’s true possession has become alienated from God and awaits restoration. Paul takes this image and applies it to the body of Christ composed of Jews and Gentiles. Finally, although verse 19 is difficult to translate into elegant English there is no question that Paul’s assertion is that God’s power is unsurpassed, and it has been deployed to the advantage of believers. There are no created powers that can ultimately resist God.
This leads into Ephesians 1:21-23. God’s power both raised Christ from the dead and works to seat him at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Although this is not a direct quotation from Psalm 110:1 (109:1 in the Septuagint), 1:20-23 seems to reflect the early use of this Psalm to describe Christ’s exalted status at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. It would seem that the “heavenly realms” are where matters of the utmost significance are decided, where God’s rule is fully realized. The spatial imagery of God’s right hand and the heavenly realms sets up the relationships of comparative power and status articulated more fully in verses 21-23.
Christ is above and superior to all powers. The powers Paul names here also appear in a variety of Jewish texts. These malign powers oversee practices, dispositions, and social structures that touch all aspects of human life and work to alienate people from the God of Israel. Although created as part of God’s good creation, they have become hostile to God and will need to be reconciled and put in their proper place under Christ’s rule.
The final clause of verse 23 is one of the most obscure in the epistle. The New Revised Standard Version translates the Greek by saying that God gave Christ to be head of all things for the church, which is his body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” This is certainly an acceptable translation, but not the only way to read the Greek. Nuances of translation aside, the point here is to emphasize Christ’s role in filling all things or bringing them to their proper end and that the church is the locus of that filling.
November 6, 2022