Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 1:3-14 begins with the pronouncement of a blessing upon God in response to the abundant ways in which God has blessed us (verse 3).

Amos 7:8
"See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel." (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

July 15, 2018

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Ephesians 1:3-14 begins with the pronouncement of a blessing upon God in response to the abundant ways in which God has blessed us (verse 3).

In fact, this blessing provides the structure for the entirety of the passage. In the Greek text, all of verses 3-14 form a single sentence, with clause after clause describing the ways in which God has blessed us and the implications of these blessings for our lives. Almost all modern English translations break the passage up into multiple sentences in order to accommodate readers who would undoubtedly find such a long sentence cumbersome and difficult to follow. If you want to get a sense of how the original syntax actually worked, read the King James Version of the passage, which mirrors the Greek syntax. While I’m sure that most readers will be very thankful for the modern English translations, the latter do tend to obscure the unity of the passage under the theme of God’s blessings and blessedness.

The overall point of the passage is to lay out God’s sweeping plan for history and the place that the audience, which consisted primarily of Gentile Christians, occupies in God’s plan. God’s grand plan is fundamentally one of grace and salvation, and it is this recognition which is to result in the praise of God, the pronouncement of God’s blessedness. Such recognition and resulting praise should be the same for Christians today as it was for the Ephesians.

As a part of the presentation of the divine plan, Paul emphasizes God’s will and the audience’s elected status. Verse 4 says that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world”; verse 5 says that God “destined us for adoption as his children”; and verse 11 says that we have “been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.” Such language today often raises questions about human free will and the issue of whether God controls who believes and who doesn’t, but the point of the passage has little to do with such questions about the status of individuals.

The passage’s point, rather, is that the salvation of Gentile Christians through Christ has been a part of God’s plan from the beginning of creation. This is “the mystery of his [God’s] will” referred to in verse 9. In the first-century context, this was an important lesson for Gentile Christians, as the status of Jews as God’s sole people prior to the coming of Christ raised questions about God’s fairness to and love for all people. The passage assures the audience that they were part of God’s plan all along. The unity of Jews and Gentiles together in Christ is one of the major themes of Ephesians as a whole, laid out especially in Ephesians 2 and 3.

The passage also emphasizes that the status of the audience as God’s people is solely a matter of God’s grace, not a result of anything the audience did. We became adopted as God’s children because it was God’s will to destine us as such (verse 5), and our future inheritance exists for the same reason (verse 11). Our sins were forgiven by “the riches of his grace” (verse 7) that God “lavished on us” (verse 8).

Later in the letter, Paul emphasizes the hopelessness of Gentiles’ situation prior to Christ’s coming — “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-12). Ephesians also famously asserts in 2:8 that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Christ’s coming changed everything for Gentiles, and it was solely God’s initiative! This emphasis on grace does not mean, however, that the present moral status or actions of Christians are irrelevant. Quite the contrary — part of our election involves being “holy and blameless before him in love” (Ephesians 1:4), and our new life in Christ was precisely “for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (2:10).

This blessed status of redeemed Gentiles before God is a key component of God’s entire plan in creation and history. Verse 10 states remarkably that God’s ultimate plan (“for the fullness of time”) is “to gather up all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth,” and the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s people is central in this regard — it is the “mystery of his will” that has been revealed in Christ (verse 9). The resulting transformation of the lives of Gentiles is expressed beautifully.

Not only are we said to have been destined for adoptions as God’s children and redeemed by his grace, but we are now those who “hope in Christ” and who “live for the praise of his glory” (verse 12). The last distinguishing mark of the redeemed Christian life mentioned in the passage is the Holy Spirit (verses 13-14), which is referred to as “the pledge of our inheritance.” Since the Holy Spirit is the presence of God in our lives, its work in and through us is a foretaste of that time when, indeed, all things will be gathered up together in God.

The passage is thoroughly theological. Its lack of obvious practicality will likely make it a challenge for many congregations to grasp and presents a daunting task to the proclaimer. Perhaps the chief task for the proclaimer is thus to preach how the Christian life makes much more sense — can be lived much more fully — when viewed in the light of God’s overall plan and the wondrous status that God has bestowed on us. And in an age of rancor and divisive self-assertion, perhaps an emphasis on God’s grace will help achieve the Christian unity that is at the heart of the whole book of Ephesians.