Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23
In light of goodness that cannot be fully articulated, even with a profusion of words, Ephesians expresses hope for a maturing faith that comes to grasp Christ’s place in the universe and the church’s participation in his sovereignty.
This passage begins with the phrase, “because of this” which should automatically prompt the question, “because of what?” Most immediately the answer is the faith of the Ephesians. They heard the gospel message, believed, were given the Holy Spirit who acts as a guarantee of their future redemption. They are evidence of the great mystery of God (Ephesians 1:9) having just now been revealed at the fullness of time (Ephesians 1:10). Because of their response to God’s revelation, Paul responds with unceasing thanks to God. In a situation in which Paul could pat himself on the back for his work among this community or brag to others, he directs his excitement about the community to God in prayer.
He does mention the things the Ephesians are doing that cause him to be grateful: faith in Jesus and love towards all the saints. He mentions these in prayer to God so that they will increase still more. They have been enlightened he says (Ephesians 1:18), but he is hopeful that God would grant them more knowledge, more wisdom. He desires that they possess a spirit of wisdom, a thoughtfulness and reasonableness about their new identity, as well as a spirit of revelation, knowledge so superior no human mind could intuit it. He prays for a gift of both mind and mystery. In these, he wants them to know some specific things: the particular hope of God’s calling and the abundant greatness of God’s power. In other words, he is very thankful for their faith, but he is not satisfied with it.
The sovereignty of God in Christ
The mention of God’s power propels him to proclaim (with loquaciousness!) the evidence of God’s strength in Jesus Christ. That power he wants them to know still more about has been made active (literally energized, energew) in the death, resurrection, and exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here, as in many places in the New Testament, Psalm 110 provides the language for Christ’s exaltation. He is invited to sit at the right hand of God (Psalm 110:1). Paul clarifies where this right hand is located, specifying that Jesus is seated in the heavenlies (epouranos). He is no earthly Messiah sitting on the throne of Israel. His kingdom is much broader.
Lest his readers forget that heaven is above all the earth, he specifies in Ephesians 1:21 all the things that Jesus is Lord over: every ruler, authority, power, lordship, every name that is named, in Paul’s day and in the time to come. What a powerful word to Ephesian Christians in the time of the first century. No matter how comprehensive Caesar’s power seemed, Jesus was above him. In our own time, we too need to hear the comfort or the challenge that no human authority will win the day. Jesus reigns over them no matter how exciting or dismal our current situation may seem. This is the counter-cultural power of Christ the King Sunday.
When Paul quotes from another Psalm after this powerful rhetorical list, he quotes Psalm 8:2 and applies it to Jesus. Originally about the status of humanity, Paul (just like the author of Hebrews in 2:6-8) follows an allusion to Psalm 110:1 with Psalm 8:2 in application to Jesus. Jesus is the human under whose feet God has subjected everything. On the eschatological scale between already and not yet, this passage leans heavily toward the realized side. God’s power is displayed in the fact that Jesus is now currently in charge.
The reign of the church
At the close of this chapter, Paul telescopes this comprehensive authority into a realm of particular importance for his readers. In putting everything under the feet of Jesus, God also gave him the position of head over everything in the church; this is his body. The picture given here is that Christ is sovereign over everything, and the church, which flows from him and constitutes his body, also has a position of authority in the world. He fills everything; as the sovereign over all, his kingdom knows no limit. It follows that his body, the church, extends throughout his realm in time and in space. The church’s presence everywhere is evidence of Jesus’ sovereignty and therefore God’s power. We, the church, participate in the Kingdom already here.
In response to such confident assertions, a question calls out to be addressed: Why can the church not always see nor experience Christ’s sovereignty? If he reigns and the church reigns with him, why is the world in the state that it is?
Paul will go on to recognize the reality of a kingdom opposed to God. He mentions his imprisonment (Ephesians 3:1; 4:1) suffering (Ephesians 3:13) the powers and principalities opposed to God (Ephesians 6:12), and the struggles he and others have against them. His assertion of Christ’s sovereignty is not a facile claim that turns a blind eye to the reality of evil, but an unflappable assertion that recognizes evil and arises from the very midst of a struggle with it. Hence, in the first part of this section, Paul’s prayer for them includes several elements of a future promise. He wants them to hold on to the hope of their calling and the rich glory of their inheritance (Ephesians 2:18). Christ reigns and they as the church reign with him, but the experience of sovereignty is not yet fully realized. They still need to hope.
Paul has begun and ended this section with comments about the Ephesians, their faith and their participation in the church, but it is the meat in the middle that gives the bread on the outside its identity as a sandwich. In other words, they know who they are because they are coming to know who God in Christ is. He has much to praise about the Ephesians because they have been invited into the sovereignty of the King. With excitement almost too great for words, or at least too great for few words, he reminds them that they have now found identity with the winning team. No matter what is going on in their world, all the world is truly under the power of God in Christ, and when they come into their inheritance, they will see and experience it to be so.