Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23
The earlier preaching studies for this passage gathered here in Working Preacher surely offer us part of the “wisdom and revelation” given by the Spirit (Ephesians 1:17) to help the “eyes of our hearts” be opened more fully to both the immanent and heavenly presence of God in Christ throughout the cosmos.
I highly commend all the thoughtful and passionate work of those who have written on this Ascension passage. On the one hand, the sheer variety of emphases suggests the richness of the passage itself. On the other, that variety of informed and faithful exegesis has a theological basis: the riches of our inheritance are constituted by God’s yearning to be fully among us, each and all of us, at every time and place. The “immeasurable (v. 19) fullness of God encompasses all our concerns and questions because God is living and so are we, God’s people. The richness of the ways to hear and understand the gifts of God, the varieties of ways in which wisdom and revelation enable us to know God, can be a theme for preaching in its own right.
I wonder if our text from Ephesians might have been greeted with a little sigh of relief by those original hearers. The first section of chapter one is lush with images of our unshakeable connection with God through Christ. We hear several times of the inheritance as God’s own, marked by the seal of God’s promise, the Holy Spirit. It is a generous description of what God has already done and the wonders that await when all things in heaven and on earth are gathered up in Christ. These are exalted words, uplifting, powerful, and almost too much to take in.
In Ephesians 1:15, the writer turns to a series of I-statements that bring the truth about whose we are into the lives of his hearers. Although the writer expresses great gratitude for the faith of the believers and honors them as witnesses to their love of the Lord and one another, the writer prays that they may continue to be filled with wisdom and revelation for the sake of greater enlightenment, joy, and confidence in God. It is precisely the “immeasurable greatness” of God’s power, the mystery (v.9) of God’s gracious will and generous benevolence, the sheer gratuitous, incomprehensible grace of God that offers believers opportunity for every deepening appreciation of the great gift they have received.
This is a wonderful message for Christians of every age and every gift. There is always more of God than we knew or could imagine. What we thought we had learned about faith and the love of God come home to us new and with more power as we move through the joys and struggles of our lives. It may be the case that “all I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten”1 but we are far beyond “need” in this passage. This writer speaks to people of faith for whom the blessing of rich relationship is a gift they will never fully plumb as long as they live. That’s good news.
In C.S. Lewis’ final book in the Narnia series,2 many of the characters move toward “heaven” in a remarkable run that becomes more thrilling and freeing as they are running — not the typical result of our earthly runs! “Further up and further in,” the runners cry to each other. In another evocative example of growth in the mystery of love, the lyrics of Greg Brown’s song “Further In” are remarkable. The final verse could be addressed to the Lord Jesus, whose life for us is, at his ascension, the very life of God:
further in, O my love, take me further in
past the place where love hides its face and down to where we begin
so deep in this mystery, my tears on yours depend
and they like some wild river flow as we go further in.3
This is not a song about internal focus versus external, anymore than the writer of Ephesians is focusing on celestial geographic directions, up and down. Its again about the mystery of love, graciously poured out on us, even more graciously beckoning us to know more and more the One to whom we belong and to whom our sisters and brothers in faith likewise belong.
A believer dares to rest secure in the promises of an invisible God for reasons that are poetically described in Ephesians 1:20-23. The writer lists all the kinds of power which might lay heavy on the lives of most inhabitants of the Roman world (rule, authority, power, dominion) and declares that Jesus has been raised so far beyond these powers that they cannot touch him. How important a word of reassurance that would be for followers of one who had been crucified by the Roman imperial powers. Being raised from death meant that all earthly powers had been rendered powerless, foolish even. Secondly, quite unlike the constant shifting of powers in this age (that is, this time of earth’s life), Jesus is united with God in purpose and beneficence now and in the future.
Finally in these verses we come to the mystery of our connection to God in Christ. Jesus Christ has been made the “head” or kephale of all things “for” the church. This use of kephale can well be understood as “source” rather than authority. Rather than “head of staff” or “headmaster,” kephale makes more sense as the head in headwaters. It is the source from which flows all that he is, his “body,” the “fullness of him” which fills all in all. Jesus raised to God’s presence is like the headwaters of the Mississippi that now expands to fill, shape, even become his people.
We are the people of the flood in a very different way from Noah and his family. Jesus has broken the levees, the dykes, and he has overflowed all things for the life of his church which may live “in praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:14). This is a dangerous image for many of those who come to church on Sunday morning. Perhaps a more accessible image is that of a spring that flows into and becomes a river. The spring water is still there, still part of that larger stream and not separable from it. It is the spring that is the source and substance of the river.
We can sympathize with the writer who so passionately wanted the letter’s recipients to realize and become ever more imbued with their new reality, their being flooded with the love of God to press a metaphor a little too hard. We are not always a people much inclined to poetry which is almost demanded for expression of such great mysteries. We are a people who love music and know some few moments of inexpressible clarity about gratitude and joy. Perhaps either of those can help open up the incredible reality of our inheritance that we most often domesticate and tame.
1 Robert Fulghum, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, New York: Random House Publishing, 1986.
2 C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, 1956.
3 Greg Brown, “Further In,” http://www.gregbrown.org/gbfurth1.html#further, accessed February 12, 2016.