Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23
Ephesians 1:15-23 is one of the longer prayer sections in Paul’s letters.
Rhetorically, Paul’s prayer does more than just record the content of his prayer for his audience to read. It serves to (re)establish the vision for their identity and reassert the nature of the faith-life into which they have been called.
Why is Paul doing this, why does he say things in the particular way he does in Ephesians? Context would explain this, of course. But we know little about the context of Paul’s audience. It is likely that the original audience may have been broader than the community in Ephesus. Nevertheless, one clear theme is reconciliation in Christ — reconciliation to God and consequently also to one another, reconciliation that crosses established lines Greco-Roman culture and human traditions had drawn that kept certain peoples apart. Reminding people of our rootedness in God’s reconciling action in Christ and of its very real consequences for how we live in relation to one another is something we can never wear out.
The general flow of this section can helpfully be broken up into three sections.
Verses 15-16. Paul expresses his ongoing remembrance and prayer for his audience. He especially draws attention to their “faith” and “love.”
Paul specifies that this remembrance and prayer is on the basis of what he has “heard.” We should always be clear as we use the word “faith” that it should not be reduced to just mental assent to some creed, but as active trust in what God has done and will do, and life lived in participation in, response to, and reflection of what God has done. Do people “hear” of our faith?
This is closely linked with “love for all the saints.” Again, Paul is thanking them not for warm feelings toward others, but love in action. This “faith” and “love” will be fleshed out later in the letter in terms of the pursuit of unity, breaking through those lines that inhibit reconciliation and unity in the world. The community in Christ should never have within it evidence of the disunity that plagues the surrounding world. Where this is the case, how can the transformative life of love rooted in active faith be heard?
Verses 17-19. Here, Paul highlights the purpose of his prayer. He remembers the community in Christ and prays constantly “in order that God … might give y’all (as with 90% of the uses of “you” in the New Testament, it is plural) a spirit of wisdom and revelation … ”
Paul’s emphasis here lies on his hope that God will make known to the community God’s wisdom, riches, hope, and power. The wisdom, etc. is for the community, to be worked out as the people live and love in relationship with one another and the surrounding world.
Paul’s theological logic roots the community’s existence in what God has done; it is God who has acted for them. In many pulpits the reminder to rely on “what God has done” is nearly a broken record, an overplayed tune in Christian theology. Yet it is good to keep playing this tune as it is all too easy for us humans to start thinking that we can actually set the course for our own existence and believe that it is actually going to turn out well. However, if we play this tune too generically, it loses much of its power. We need to be reminded more specifically of God’s activity that establishes and defines us, and not just generically that we are free or forgiven or redeemed not by what we’ve done but because of what God has done. We need constant reminder of the transforming and upside-down to the world nature of God’s act in the crucified Jesus who now reigns as Lord of all creation. The wisdom, riches, hope, and power come through and are lived out in ways the normal systems of the world would find “foolish.”
Verses 20-23. Here, Paul elaborates on the power of God, focusing on God’s power displayed in God’s raising and exaltation of Jesus Christ.
As a conclusion to the prayer, this section builds on the previous verses that point to what God has done, and it draws focus to the wondrous glory of God that has been “energized” in Christ. At first sight, this passage seems very triumphalist. Paul specifies God’s exaltation of Christ above all things, placing all things under the feet of Christ, and appointing Christ as the head of the church, which is his body.
What makes the difference is not what Paul explicitly says here, but what he assumes. In verses 19-20 Paul writes that the power and strength which God “energizes” is the power that God worked first when God raised Christ from the dead. What gives this statement its bite is the subtle presumption that Christ’s exaltation and Lordship proceed from and are established upon his suffering and death.
That word “energize” is typically translated as “work” or “work out.” The Greek word commonly was used to refer to the influencing power of god in the Stoic system, the power of god that permeates and works itself out in the details of life. By stating that God’s energizing power is the very power that raised Christ from the dead, Paul proclaims that God’s triumph and the thing which energizes the people’s new existence is born out of Christ’s suffering and death. In raising Christ, God did not communicate that the suffering and death of Jesus was a bad mistake made by the world that killed him, and so God “showed the world” by undoing it. Rather, Paul proclaims that God validated the suffering and death of Jesus as the defining act for God and for very existence, down to the details of life of those “in Christ.”
This is not a sly exchange where the system of power that crucified Christ goes unchanged and continues to operate under the presumption that it is different just because the name Jesus Christ is identified with it. Because God vindicated the suffering Christ, the suffering and death are established as the economy of life under his rule. The underlying logic is the one Paul expresses in Philippians 2:5-11. The powers and dominions in our Ephesians passage are subjects paradoxically because Christ became a slave. This is, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, God’s power in weakness, foolishness from the world’s perspective, yet God’s wisdom. This is “enlightenment”: transformation through slavery, suffering, and death.
If Christ is the head, as a suffering and dying head, he is the head also of a suffering body that has died to the world’s systems. Christ’s system is not power but service, indeed, slavery in love. Paul’s prayer here in Ephesians does not proclaim victory and triumph as it had always been understood. Rather, by reminding his audience of God’s victory and triumph that comes through raising the crucified Christ, Paul reminds them of the establishment of a new order: God’s new order under the Lordship of the one who became a slave to death.
The old powers, rulers, and dominions defined by power no longer call the shots for those who are in Christ. As Paul goes on to say in chapter 2, sin and the life marked by transgression of God’s good purposes no longer have dominion. This means, as Paul will write about in most of Ephesians, that those systems of existence that kept Jew and Gentile in antagonism no longer determine life. Paul’s prayer reminds the audience of the wisdom, power, and glory of God that give birth to their new existence, an existence rooted in the one whose suffering and death reconciled the world. It is a prayer that their lives of faith active in love would be established upon and molded by this wisdom and subversive power of God. This is Paul’s prayer. Is it ours?