Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year B)

This text presents the immeasurable nature of God’s grace which has totally changed both our reality and conduct forever.

March 22, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 2:1-10

This text presents the immeasurable nature of God’s grace which has totally changed both our reality and conduct forever.

Christian life is examined in terms of a “before and after” contrast resulting from divine intervention. The enactment of divine love and grace has radically altered everything about who we are and whose we are, about how we live, why we live, and even where we live.

As is typical throughout Ephesians, the text is densely packed with clauses heaped upon clauses and prepositional phrases stacked up like cordwood. In the original Greek, verses 1-7 form a single, one hundred twenty four word sentence whose subject does not appear until verse 4 with the main verbs following in verses 5-6. Consequently, it is helpful to examine the text in smaller sections to understand and appreciate the vision of Christian existence which the author displays.1

The text opens with a kaleidoscopic depiction of our former reality and conduct (verses 1-3). Previously we were dead because of our trespasses and sins by which we conducted our lives (verses 1-2a). Such existence was also a matter of utter bondage to malevolent powers, which the text describes variously in verses 2b-3 as “this world,” “the ruler of the power of the air,” and “flesh.”

In the cosmology of Ephesians, “this world” refers to the present age in enmity with God (cf. 1:21). Here “air” is understood to be the zone between earth and the heavens which is inhabited and ruled by antagonistic forces exercising control over the world below. Later in Ephesians, this ruler is labeled the devil (4:27; 6:11). The term “flesh” depicts the human condition so turned in on itself that one’s passions, cravings, and mindset are in total disrepute and disobedience thus marking us as children of wrath (verse 3). While this was the former existence of Christians, it remains the current reality of all non-Christians (verse 2b).

2:4-7 presents God’s intervening actions and the transformation they wrought. Though we were children of wrath, God acted out of the wealth of divine mercy and abundance of love (verse 4). This divine conversion had nothing to do with how loveable we were, but with how incredibly loving God is. Thus, God made us alive with Christ, raised us with Christ, and sat us in the heavenly places where Christ now rules over all powers and dominions (2:5-6 echoing 1:20-21). In the Greek, the three verbs “made alive, raised, and seated” all have a prefix meaning “with,” highlighting how God did to us what God had previously done to Christ. This emphasizes the divinely wrought solidarity shared between Christ and Christians.

In 2:5, 8 the author declares, “You have been saved by grace.” Here the Greek use of a passive, perfect periphrastic participle bears comment. The use of the passive voice underscores how we are totally passive when it comes to being saved. God’s grace has accomplished our salvific reality. The use of the perfect tense and periphrastic participle emphasizes the duration of our being saved. It was accomplished in the past and remains our reality into the coming ages as the ongoing demonstration of the immeasurable riches of divine grace (verse 7).

This reinforces the sheer enormity of God’s mercy, love, grace, and kindness which has brought about such an altered state of existence for Christians. Likewise it also reminds Christians of the stark difference between their ongoing state of salvation and the state of non-Christians who remain dead in their trespasses and under the devil.

2:8-10 elucidates the surpassing riches of God’s grace by making two interrelated points. First, the radical change we have experienced is a pure gift of God’s grace. In verses 8-9 the Greek utilizes emphatically negative parallel phrases (best translated as “not from us” and “not from works”) to drive home the point that our transformation is in no way the result of our activity. Even the reference to faith in 2:8 as the means by which God’s grace has saved us is to be understood not as an action which stems from our own volition but as that component of grace which empowers our faith response.

Second, while the text emphasizes that our salvation is not from works, it also understands works to be an indispensible component of God’s grace. Because we were created in Christ Jesus (i.e., made alive and raised with Christ), we are God’s handiwork with the goal of good works (2:10a). These good works are so vital that God had prepared them ahead of time (2:10b), recalling the claims made in 1:4-5,11-12 about God’s actions and decisions being established before the world’s foundation.

Our works have not saved us, but they are part of the goal God had in mind in saving us. Hence good works are not simply the by-products of our conversion but were pre-planned and pre-prepared by God.

The Greek text closes with a direct contrast to our former life which is not as clear as it could be in most English translations. Just as we had formerly walked (peripateō) in our trespasses and sins (verse 2a), so now the purpose of God’s pre-planned activity is that we would walk (repeating the Greek word, peripate) in good works (verse 10b). Thus our reality and conduct, our being and doing, are intricately and indelibly intertwined, both in our former existence of being dead in trespasses and in our ongoing existence of being made alive with Christ.

1The overwhelming majority of Pauline scholars have concluded that the apostle Paul did not write this letter. Rather, it was most likely written by a disciple of Paul after his death as a sincere attempt to have Paul’s theology continue to speak to the life of the church. While utilizing many of Paul’s core theological concepts, the author of Ephesians has also crafted his/her own distinctive theological visions and claims.