Epiphany of Our Lord

It is quite common within our various churches and within the broader Christian subculture to hear statements like: “After completing my theological studies, I plan on taking a ministry job” or “I became a Christian when I believed and then, soon after, I decided to be baptized.”

When they saw that the star had stopped
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. - Matthew 2:10 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

January 6, 2018

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

It is quite common within our various churches and within the broader Christian subculture to hear statements like: “After completing my theological studies, I plan on taking a ministry job” or “I became a Christian when I believed and then, soon after, I decided to be baptized.”

On the surface, there is nothing severely wrong with these statements. After all, they are simply trying to convey the personal experience of conversion and the pursuit of ordained ministerial leadership. Yet, lurking underneath the surface resides a theologically dubious assumption, namely, that my decision about vocation or conversion precedes God’s supernatural, sovereign, spiritual empowerment for my conversion, calling, and redemption.

However, the priority of God in revelation and redemption could not be clearer than it is in the Epistle to the Ephesians. There we find a frequent emphasis on the power and prerogative of God in process of receiving divine revelation and in the application of redemption to and through the church to the entire cosmos. This divine initiative precedes and empowers the salvation of humanity and opens up the possibility of the human reception of the knowledge of God.

In Ephesians 3, for example, Paul does not say that he “decided to become a minister,” as if it was one of many options that he could choose between, perhaps forsaking a promising career in dentistry, opting to focus on developing his apostolic kudos rather than an exhaustive knowledge of the intricacies of incisors. Rather, using the Greek passive form, the text makes clear that Paul “was made” a minister according to God’s grace and according to the working of God’s power. This was part of God’s plan before it was part of Paul’s.

In our highly individualistic contemporary culture it sometimes stings our egos to consider that the entirety of our existence, preservation, vocation, life, and salvation lies totally beyond our control, in the hands of a loving, sovereign God without whom we have neither existence, nor subsistence, nor any vitality, purpose, or hope whatsoever. We don’t choose God; God chooses and elects us, and he elects to be for us — for all humanity — in the person of Jesus Christ (see also Ephesians 1:1-14).

Paul continues to express in the context of our passage (verse 8) that God’s grace is the source of his own ability to preach and to “bring to light” the “mystery” of the Gospel, which is the full inclusion of the Gentiles in the one “body” of the Messiah (verse 6). Even the “mystery” itself was “made known” (passive tense) to Paul by a divinely-initiated, spiritually-communicated “revelation” (verse 3). The literal word translated “revelation” is the Greek word apokalupsis which can also be translated “apocalypse.”

God’s historical work in and through Israel which culminates in the ultimate display of his covenant faithfulness in the salvation of the cosmos through Messiah Jesus can indeed be observed in hindsight throughout the canon of Scripture. Yet, the humanly observed historical links alone are not sufficient not make the words of the biblical text a divine revelation of Jesus Christ to us; the Word of God. God alone can work that miracle in our hearts and in our minds by his Spirit, thus causing the words of the text to become for us the very living and active Word of God.

So what does all of this mean for preachers, for ministers, for theological students or lay students of the Bible, and for members of our congregations? It is a reminder that none of our noble efforts in exegesis, sermon preparation, ministry, nor any of the elements of our pursuit of holiness in the life of faith derive their genesis, unction, or saving power from our own human skills and initiative. Yes — diligent study and intentional, holy living are vitally important to faithful ministry and to the life of faith; without them our faith is dead! Yet, the merely human study of God’s word can never quarantine, quantify, or contain God’s power and prerogative to supernaturally, apocalyptically reveal himself to us through his Word.

The Christian life is not made “successful” through the simple following of paradigms and pragmatic patterns for success. The only way to experience the words of the Bible as the Word of God, or to experience the message of the Gospel as the power of salvation, is by a God-initiated, grace-empowered leap of faith into a new world and into a new way of knowing, mediated by the Bible, empowered by the Spirit, in which we come to know Jesus to be the divine Son of God and the Savior of the world — not by mere human evidence — but by the disruptive, apocalyptic, supernatural saving power of Almighty God.

Lastly, it is crucial to point out what might be the remedy to the common misperception that our salvation consists of 99% of God’s work, a 1% of our own, namely our response in faith. Verse 12 concludes by expressing that the boldness and confidence that we have in approaching Christ Jesus our Lord is “because of his faithfulness.”

While many translations opt to turn the Greek construction here into a statement about our own faith as the root of our confidence, it is more in line with the Christocentric emphases of the book of Ephesians to envision this as a statement about Christ’s faithfulness to us (which is what the Greek literally says, namely “because of his faithfulness”) rather than as a statement that loads too much weight onto our own faith, which can ebb and flow, experiencing varying degrees of strength or weakness, and upon which often we cannot place our full confidence because of our sinful human condition. Whether you are a preacher, teacher, congregant, or a little child, the message of Ephesians is that your confidence as a chosen, loved, valuable, redeemed human being rests in the election, work, initiative, power, and faithfulness of Jesus Christ.