Commentary on Ephesians 2:1-10
What a difference a generation makes.
By now it is commonly assumed that the author of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians was not the apostle himself but perhaps a disciple writing in his name. For this reason we tend to be a little more wary of the theology we find here, simply because it does not always match up with what we read in the authentic letters. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in their very compelling book, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary behind the Church’s Conservative Icon (HarperOne, 2009), suggest that when reading the epistles we need to distinguish at least three Pauls: a radical, a conservative, and a reactionary.
The former is the apostle of the authentic letters, while the latter — an author intent on upholding the status quo of Roman society, especially in terms of social relations between men and women, masters and slaves, children and parents — is the person behind the so-called disputed letters. But this analysis, brilliant though it is, can be confusing at times, and our passage for this Sunday offers a case in point. While the pseudo-Pauline author of Ephesians is certainly reactionary with respect to his instructions on maintaining traditional familial and social hierarchies in the church, he appears to have grave reservations about the character of the Roman world in which the body of Christ found itself near the end of the first century.
What is perhaps most striking when comparing this text with the authentic letters of Paul is its clear move away from an eschatology in which Christ’s return was imminent toward a realized eschatology in which believers now stand, by virtue of their baptism, “alive together with Christ” (2:5). Indeed, they are raised up and in some mystical way seated alongside their Lord at the right hand of God “in the heavenly places” (2:6). In other words, salvation is now no longer an event that will occur at some point in the future but a very present reality.
Whereas Paul could say that a believer is justified by grace through faith and thus could hope for some final redemptive experience (Romans 5:9; I Thessalonians 5:8-9), the author of Ephesians introduces a slightly different nuance to the theology of his predecessor: “…by grace you have been saved…” (2:5). And in case the reader misses it the first time, the affirmation is repeated just three verses later: “…for by grace you have been saved through faith…” (2:8).
Note how this serves as a foundation for the personal proclamations so often heard today — “I am saved” — and what a diversion it is from Paul’s encouragement to his beloved church in Philippi: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). And here lies the rub: working for God’s good pleasure. How are we to interpret this?
Commentators have observed that the move toward a realized eschatology in the latter third of the first century was most likely a theological response to a delay in the return of Christ. If Jesus had not appeared by now, fully a generation after his death, then either he was mistaken or there was some misunderstanding about his teaching. The latter option was the obvious choice for a church whose faith was vital and growing. The emphasis then came to be placed on affirming the realized Kingdom of God over which Jesus in his heavenly lordship now sat at the right hand of God. In a context where Gnostic currents were hard to ignore, this resulted in a cosmic dualism that appealed — and still appeals — to many. Whereas Paul spoke of a creation waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God (Romans 8:19), and hoped for the day in which the world itself would be renewed, the author of Ephesians emphasizes the believer’s distrust of the cosmos.
Their hope now, as the epistle makes clear, lay in ages that are yet to come (2:7). This world — ruled as it was by “the power of the air” and populated by “children of wrath” driven by the “desires of flesh and senses” (2:2-3) — held no hope for those who had been baptized into a new and separate reality. Their eyes were focused on another realm entirely. The best they could do was to endure this present age and remove themselves from its deathly foundations.
Which brings us back to the so-called reactionary Paul: how could he urge the faithful to uphold the social structures of the status quo (5:21-6:9) if in fact these were manifestations of a world bent on disobedience and destruction? If Crossan and Borg are correct in their assumptions, then we can only assume that this served as a kind of survival strategy, a way to remain compliant in the face of adversity, born of a church whose true hope lay elsewhere.
Good works, under these circumstances, tend to forsake their social justice component entirely and turn inward toward a personal moralism. For what use is it to labor toward a new creation if the present reality is lost to the powers that be? But are these the kinds of works that appeal to God’s “good pleasure”?
For centuries the church has struggled to understand its relationship to a world that was created good by God but is corrupted on account of human sin. In times of great trial and hardship our natural tendency has been simply to throw up our hands and be done with it all. We assure ourselves that, whatever the case, we are justified by God’s grace through faith and enjoy (or will enjoy) the salvation that comes with this. We also affirm with Paul that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10).
Certainly God calls us to be sanctified and holy, but this will ultimately be informed by our understanding of the church and its vocation in the world. What works serve God’s good pleasure? It is indeed a matter of fear and trembling to discern how much time we should devote to transforming this world and how much spiritual energy we should expend in fleeing from it.