Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14
The Second Lesson for this Sunday is the first in a series of readings from the Letter to the Ephesians extending over seven Sundays.
Of the total verses in Ephesians (155), nearly half (75 of them) will be read during these seven Sundays.
Reading Ephesians by way of the lectionary is necessarily selective. What is striking in reading through the assigned texts is that those chosen tend to be the most edifying in terms of theology, which can be expected. In addition, one finds the most general verses in terms of ethical admonitions, leaving aside some of the more specific instructions.
For example, the important and well-known passage on the church as the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:1-16) is included on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 18). But the “household code” (Ephesians 5:21-6:9) that lists the duties of wives, husbands, children, slaves, and masters is not included, and many a preacher will be glad for that.
Ephesians is generally regarded as deutero-Pauline — a letter associated with Paul (he is named as its author at Ephesians 1:1), but more likely the composition of a person who sought to impersonate Paul in a later situation. The arguments leading to this conclusion are well known and can be read in standard introductions to the New Testament and now even in study Bibles that are widely available to the public.
The lesson for this Sunday begins with a lofty doxological statement concerning God the Father (1:3-6). Next, we have a brief characterization of Jesus as the one in whom we have redemption (1:7). In 1:8-10, the author again speaks about God and of what God has done in Christ. Finally, in 1:11-14 the focus is once more upon Christ.
But even in these verses there is no clear-cut division. For example, within 1:11-14, primarily on Christ, there is a clear reference to God the Father in the long phrase at 1:11b: “the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.”
The passage is filled with assertions about God the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. In its “God statements,” it sets forth an image of God as one who:
- has chosen believers
- has destined them for adoption as his children
- continues to bless them
- showers his grace upon them
He has revealed his will in the sending of Christ, and he seeks to “gather up all things” in both heaven and earth in Christ.
In its “Christ statements,” the passage portrays Jesus as one whose death is redemptive — in this case explicitly meaning the forgiveness of sins — and whose coming into the world is revelatory; he has made known “the mystery” of God’s will. In him we have gained an “inheritance” and have “the word of truth,” which is “the gospel of [our] salvation.”
Christ is therefore both the Redeemer and the Revealer. Of course, these are the two main functions of Christ throughout the New Testament.
Concerning the Spirit, it is the “promised” Spirit. Whether the author knows of the promise of the Spirit in the Gospel of John (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7) or simply from the promise in Joel 2:28-29, one cannot tell. In any case, the view that the Spirit would be poured out and distributed among believers in the early days of the Christian church was widely held. Both Acts and the letters of the apostle Paul testify to it (Acts 2:1-36; Romans 5:5; 8:13-16; 1 Corinthians 12:3-11, etc.).
The experience of the Spirit is a “pledge” or “down payment” (the Greek word arrabōn can mean either) for the final and ultimate redemption that is to follow. Here is a case of the “already/not yet” dynamic that one finds in the New Testament. The gift of the Spirit is the “already” of the new age of redemption, but it is only a pledge of more to come, the “not yet.”
What is written about the Spirit in 1:13b-14 is similar to what Paul himself had written. He said that God has anointed us “by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment (arrabōn)” (2 Corinthians 1:22).
The entire passage is so highly compact that it is a challenge for both the preacher and the hearer. It has to do with a broad range of theological concepts, such as election, revelation, and more broadly, atonement. It even makes use of specific theological terms, such as “redemption” (1:7, 14) and “salvation” (1:13).
A sermon on this passage will have to be limited to a very few of these concepts at best. Moreover, in most parts of the country this text will be read on a rather warm, perhaps hot, day near the middle of July when hearers may not be very receptive to heavy theological terms.
The preacher who plans to preach on this text could do well to speak of Christ as Revealer and Redeemer, both in the New Testament and in the faith of the church through the ages.
One could refer to or summarize a narrative from the story of Jesus that illustrates how he was the one in whom we see God most clearly (revelation). That can be followed by rephrasing other parts of the passage that have to do with salvation (redemption). In his death upon the cross Christ bore the consequences of human sinfulness, so there is forgiveness. But he has been raised from the dead. Easter marks a new beginning for us and for the entire world.
Alternatively, one could the use of the phrase “all things” — found twice in this passage (1:10, 11).
The first time, “all things” refers to everything in God’s universe. All things are important to God and to Christ, so we look out upon the world with new “ecological eyes.”
The second time “all things” is used, it refers to God’s accomplishing all things according to his will in Christ’s resurrection and reign. Since God has done all things that are truly needful for us in Christ, we can therefore have a renewed hope, living for the praise of his glory, which is also expressed twice (1:12, 14).