Second Sunday of Christmas

Normally, the letters of the Pauline corpus have a thanksgiving section immediately following the salutation (Ephesians 1:2).

John 1:9
"The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." Photo by Ilja Tulit on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

January 5, 2020

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Normally, the letters of the Pauline corpus have a thanksgiving section immediately following the salutation (Ephesians 1:2).

The two exceptions are 2 Corinthians and Ephesians which have a blessing section. Indeed, Ephesians 1:3a is an exact replica of 2 Corinthians 1:3a. In the Greek, the blessing of Ephesians 1:3-14 is one, extended, complex sentence (which most English translations try to break up into more manageable sentences). Its focus involves all that God has accomplished in and through Christ. It also presents the place of God’s people within the grand, divine plan of salvation.

Whereas Ephesians 1:3a blesses God, 1:3b-4 explains why God is to be blessed. God blessed us with every spiritual blessing. In this case, “spiritual” has less to do with a person’s inner, religious disposition, and more to do with the activity of the Holy Spirit (a theme to which the author will return in 1:13-14). The reference to the heavenly places or realms introduces how God’s work in and through Christ involves the entire cosmos (including the malevolent powers). The phrase “in Christ” at the end of 1:3 (and which will be repeated throughout the blessing) most likely functions in multiple ways. God’s work is centered in the person of Christ. Believers live in the reality which is the cosmic Christ. God’s work is through Christ.

Ephesians 1:4 introduces the theme of election that will dominate 1:3-14. God chose us in Christ (again in a multivalent sense) before creation. This underlines both the definitive and the awesome nature of God’s salvific plan which includes us and the entire cosmos. “Holy, without blemish, and in love in God’s sight” (1:4b) presents both our distinctive reality and our moral conduct as a result of God electing us and as a result of living in the very presence of God.

In Ephesians 1:5-6, both the goals and the means of God’s predestining actions are presented. God predestined us through Jesus Christ (1:5a) and graciously bestowed grace (in 1:6b the twin cognates charis charitoo are used emphatically) upon us in and through God’s beloved, i.e., Christ. This was accomplished according to God’s delightful will (1:5b). The dual goals of God’s predestined plan were to adopt us as God’s children (1:5a) and to have us praise God’s grace-filled glory (1:6a). In this way, God’s predestination comes full circle. God graciously bestows grace on us so that we would praise God’s grace-filled glory.

The richness of God’s grace is further highlighted in Ephesians 1:7-8. For it is in accordance to such vast divine grace that we experienced liberation as the forgiveness of our trespasses through Christ’s sacrificial death (1:7). Likewise, in lavishing such lush, divine grace upon us we are enabled to have the insight and wisdom to understand the core of God’s plan of and for salvation (1:8).

Ephesians 1:9-10 elaborates on God’s disclosure of God’s salvific plan. This divine plan had been hidden (“the mystery of his will” in verse 9a), but that which God had ordained in Christ according to God’s pleasure (verse 9b recalling verse 5b) God made known to believers (verse 9a) in the person and event of Christ. Indeed, 1:10 goes on to claim that Christ is the summation or culmination of both time (“fullness of time,” verse 10a) and space (“things in heaven and the things on earth,” verse 10b). For Ephesians, all reality is thus united both in and through Christ.

Two prior points are recapitulated in Ephesians 1:11-12. The first involves God’s predestining action which in verse 11 is depicted as our inheritance (literally our being appointed) for which we have been destined according to the accomplishment of God’s purpose and will (see verse 5). The second involves the purpose of God’s predestining activity. It is carried out so that we would praise God’s glory (verse 12; see verse 6). Believers are also described here as the ones who have already placed their hope in Christ (verse 12b) which nudges the focus toward the future as 1:14 will make clear.

The phrase “in him” is repeated twice in 1:13. The first “in him” stands emphatically at the very beginning of the verse and refers to believers existing in the reality which is Christ. Later in the letter, this will be imaged as the church being the body and Christ being the head (see 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 29, 32). In the realm of Christ, believers were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. Such a seal indicates divine ownership. The second use of “in him” indicates that Christ is the object of believers’ faith which comes through hearing the word of truth which is the gospel of salvation. 1:13 also contains a stylistic shift from first person plural to second person plural that addresses the experience of the audience more directly.

Ephesians 1:14 expands on the imagery of divine ownership by depicting the Holy Spirit as the down payment of the believers’ inheritance. So being sealed by the Spirit is a divine pledge that we will receive our full inheritance which is our full liberation as God’s possession (Ephesians 1:14 echoing 1:11). As in 1:6, 12 so here in 1:14b, the goal of all this divine salvific activity is our praising God’s glory.

When the topic of predestination is brought up, the focus is typically on which individuals God has elected for salvation and which individuals God has elected for damnation. Such a focus is simply too small to capture the claims about God’s predestining activity in Ephesian 1:3-14. Here the focus is on God’s cosmic plan for salvation which God established before creation. God accomplishes this plan in and through Christ, especially through Christ’s death (verse 7). This divine, salvific plan is an expression of God’s delightful will (verse 9) which empowers us to comprehend God’s cosmic predestining activity (verses 8-9).

As a result of our election, we are made holy (verse 4), adopted as God’s children (verse 5), claimed as God’s possession (verses 11, 13, 14), and marked by the Holy Spirit (verse 13). The ultimate goal of God’s predestining activity is not just our salvation as part of Christ’s administration of the universe (verse 10). It is also for our praise of God for who God is and what God has done (verses 6, 12, 14). Finally, in this grand vision of God’s predestining activity, there is no contemplation of the place or fate of non-believers. The focus is solely on its positive aspects.