Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12
The writing style of the author of Ephesians seems at first glance more sing-able than preach-able.1
Set it to music and let the organist have at it! One subordinate clause follows another. One image piles upon another, just as we saw in Ephesians 1:3-14. Yet, as in the opening cadences of this letter, we find themes made powerful by the repetition of certain words and by the very grammar of the passage. This passage lays before us opportunities for exploration of less familiar concepts that may be of great value to contemporary Christians. There is an open-endedness implied, a process in which God’s revelation is precisely that, God’s to grant as God will. At the same time, that revelation is in accord with God’s creative activity and promises. One hears the conviction that although time may pass at nearly interminable length for us, God is neither deterred nor distracted from being known by all God’s creatures (see “all things”, for instance, in v. 9), not least the Gentiles who had not known God. It is only through the gift of revelation (unveiling) that reliable and surprising new insight comes (insight which profoundly affects social relationships). Why would insight from God prove surprising? Perhaps because it seemed unpredictable. Perhaps also because God’s wisdom is both multi-faceted and inscrutable. Because God is patient, persevering, and powerful in working out God’s will (cf. energeian, v. 7), it is important that these mysteries of God are reliably good news.
For contemporary believers all these claims so confidently made and given now for us through the wisdom of Christ embodied in the church, are indeed good news. Ephesians puts before us a God whose fullness is rich and calls for our best learning, discernment, and engagement. Ephesians puts us in a world, that reign of God although the author does not use that language, in which we may expect to be surprised, not only by C. S. Lewis’ “joy,” but also by new insight (sunesin), understanding, knowledge, all of which may create for us new neighbors whom God has from the dawn of time intended for us.
Let me begin with a little attention to the structure of the passage. Over and over again in these verses the writer points to the purpose of God in two distinct ways. One way is by the use of Greek indications of the purpose of event. In a second and connected method, the author underlines explicitly and implicitly God’s agency in these events.
As to purpose, check out verses 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, and 10. The author moves from the purpose for which he has stewardship (oikonomian) of God’s grace for the sake of the Gentiles to whom he writes. This stewardship has a purpose, namely that of revealing to the Gentiles a mystery that they had previously not known. The purpose of the revelation was to enable Gentiles to trust the insight of the writer and become as a people (v. 6) co-inheritors, one body, sharers in the promises of the gospel. This great gift, emphasized by the repetitions of the preposition syn attached to three consecutive nouns, was not the end of the story, however. One thinks of Isaiah reminding Israel that their own covenant relationship with God was a great and unmerited gift the sharing of which was their calling (Isaiah 49:6).
Not least because God is the creator of all things (v. 9), it is the calling of the churches/assemblies (who, we recall from v. 6, are “one body”) to make known to leaders and authorities (v. 10) the “many-faceted wisdom of God.” The high calling of Christians together is the sharing of God’s very wisdom which, for this author, is many-faceted. The word polypoikilos shows up only here in the New Testament. Because God is creator of all, God’s wisdom concerns even the leaders and powers of heaven. Because God’s wisdom (sophia) is many-sided or varied and inscrutable (anexichniaston, v. 8: see also apokekrummenou from apokrupto, v. 9), making known this wisdom requires the very boldness and freedom (parrhesia, v. 12) which we already have (exomen, a present tense verb, v. 12).
At the same time that churches are challenged by the good news and gift of receiving revelation of God’s mystery in order to share it as a call to the highest powers, they/we are humbled and encouraged by the constant reminder that we are given this insight, given this revelation, granted lives as co-inheritors of God’s promise. Passive verbs with God as an implied subject abound. Such verbs are used to describe the writer’s own calling (vv. 2, 3, 7, 8). Such verbs describe also the calling of the churches (vv. 2, 5, 10). The source of gift and calling is made explicit as well, lest we attribute them to any of those lesser, but still strong, powers and authorities on high (v. 10). In v. 2 it is the stewardship of God’s grace which was given. In v. 4 it is the mystery of Christ the understanding of which is to be shared. In v. 5 revelation happens by the spirit, as in v. 7 the grace of God was given by the working of God’s own power. Christ Jesus as agent appears in 11 and 12 (by his faithfulness, dia tes pisteos autou).
Thus does the author reassure his hearers of the validity of promises of their inclusion as children of God who share in the very body of God’s people. Likewise, he assures them of the high seriousness of a calling that speaks to boldly to power through discernment of the very mysteries planted in creation and brought to light (see v. 9.) Thus also does the author establish God’s great fidelity even in the midst of sudden turn to include Gentiles as part of God’s people. It is, of course, through Christ that all this has come to pass, from the concrete circumstances of the writer (v. 1) to the confidence and boldness of grace bestowed on all believers (v. 12). Christ is mentioned five times by name and/or title and understood as the antecedent of autou (v. 12). It is the mystery, the promises, the riches, and the faith of Christ that are shared for the empowerment and inclusion of a people who once were no people.
For preaching? My goodness, there is so much. The trustworthiness of God over time, experienced and enacted in ways that could not be predicted or anticipated. The generosity of God in giving, giving, giving for enlightenment, discernment, hope, confidence. The commitment of God to create reliable leaders and re-create us as bold speakers of the truth. The call of God’s people to find a way to utter those promises of inclusion, belonging, and the ongoing passion of the creator for the creation. The presence of Christ and the reality of a savior crucified and raised (note those passive verbs), who with the spirit shapes and empowers life throughout the cosmos. The reality that even our call to speak truth to power is a humble calling, for all is not yet clear or settled in such a way that any of us can know for certain. That what makes us who we are as believers, our glory, our visible reputation (doxa, v. 13) is to abide in confidence of God’s calling and our own, in the faithfulness of Christ.
- Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 6, 2015.
January 6, 2021