Monday, January 25, 2010

Commentary on Scripture: Ephesians

(Please note that I use an NASB translation, so some of the phrase may be different from your Bible).
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Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are at Ephesus and the faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Eph. 1:3-14 ~~ A doxology to God the Father (v. 3-6) and God the Son (v. 7-13a) with some mention of the Holy Spirit (v. 13b-14). This doxology strongly emphasizes divine benevolence in the various doctrines of spiritual gifts, election, redemption, reward, general and special revelation, eschatology, and teleology.

Eph. 1:3 ~~ "Every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ" seems to indicate that our union with Christ has already empowered us, by granting access to God and his (spiritual) power and might. This dovetails nicely with the discussion of spiritual warfare that ends this letter in Ephesians 6.

Eph. 1:4-5 ~~ A strong statement of predestination, particularly emphasizing the benevolence of God

Eph. 1:7 ~~ The "redemption through His blood" seems to be distinct from "the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of His grace." Theologically they cannot be too distinct, but perhaps they can be considered two different modes of the same act of grace and forgiveness?

Eph. 1:8-9 ~~ God's wisdom expressed by revealing the mystery of His will

Eph. 1:11 ~~ Inheritance as sons of God is distinct from forgiveness or redemption (cf. Eph. 1:7) but is strongly correlated in this doxology with mentions of predestination.

Eph. 1:13-14 ~~ The Holy Spirit is given as a pledge of our inheritance in heaven (which I correlate to the "store up treasures in heaven" passage in Matthew 6:20). This reward is given for the praise of His glory, but (more interestingly) for the purpose of redeeming God's own possession; that is, us. My next contemplation will be on this very topic, actually, but there seems to be a suggestion that we might be more easily redeemed (brought into the Church) with the promise that we will not only be redeemed but also restored, not only forgiven for our sins but also made excellent in virtue.

Eph. 1:17 ~~ "God and Father of glory" gives us the spirit of wisdom and revelation of the knowledge of Him.

Eph. 1:18-19 ~~ Eyes of the heart are opened in the "hope of His calling" -- "the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints." Here again is the prominent suggestion that we are more easily able to approach God with a carrot (incentive for reward) than a stick (punishment for sin). Paul in facts prayed that they would see this hope of inheritance, along with the "surpassing greatness of His power" and the "working of the strength of His might," and thereby accept the Gospel.

Eph. 1:22-23 ~~ This passage parallels Ephesians 5 and the (very controversial) issues of headship in marriage. God gave headship over Church to Christ; all other things were "put... in subjection under His feet" except for the church, which is Christ's body. This is illustrative in the context of Ephesians 5:21-22, for it shows that submission is not subjection but much more dignifying to all involved.

Eph. 2:1-2 ~~ Former death was when you "walked according to the course of the world, according to the prince of the power of the air, according to the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience." We are beset by temptation from around us, below us, and within us; we are caused to sin by influence of the world, of Satan, and of ourselves.

Eph. 2:3 ~~ The sins arising from ourselves are called "lusts of our flesh," but they arise from indulging the desires of both our body and our mind. 1 John 2:16 makes this same point (see especially St. Augustine's commentary on that passage in his Confessions.

Eph. 2:6 ~~ God, rich in mercy, made us alive, raised us up with Him and seated us "in the heavenly places in Christ." This is the same phrase used in the introductory doxology.

Eph. 2:8 ~~ Salvation "through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is a gift from God." Christians receive the spirit of faith as a gift from the Providence of God.

Eph. 2:10 ~~ Humans are "created... for good works." In a similar vein, Lord Acton defined liberty not as unlimited freedom from restraint, but the freedom to act virtuously.

Eph. 2:14-16 ~~ The Law (of commandments and ordinances) is the cause of division. Christ broke down the dividing wall, by abolishing it in His flesh. He reconciled us to God in the cross, "by it having put to death" the Law.

Eph. 2:19-21 ~~ We are residents of God's house, which is built on the foundations of the apostles and the prophets, with a cornerstone of Christ, which is becoming a holy temple in the Lord. The imagery is quite interesting, for the cornerstone is generally laid last and is necessary for the stability of the whole.

Eph. 3:3 ~~ "By revelation there was made known the mystery" (reason clarified through experience) " I wrote before in brief" (previous letter to Ephesus: perhaps unpreserved or non-canonical?)

Eph. 3:5-6 ~~ Mystery related to the redemption of Gentiles "not revealed to past generations." This passage suggests that the reason for the early church dispute between Judaizers who wished to preserve Jewish customs and the Law and the bloc led by Peter who wished to open the doors of the Gospel to the Gentiles was ultimately one of knowledge. The answer to the riddle was given by vision or revelation to individuals (Peter in Acts 12; Paul in this passage and others). The authority and credibility of these church elders and apostles gave their individual experiences a rational weight in argument.

Eph. 3:6 ~~ Note the repeated emphasis on the equality of the Gentiles: "fellow heirs... fellow members of the body... fellow partakers of the promise."

Eph. 3:8-9 ~~ Paul given the grace to preach the riches of Christ, to make all know the administration of the mystery" of the universal extent of salvation. That is, Paul did not just spread word that the Gospels could reach the Gentiles; he brought it to them himself.

Eph. 3:12 ~~ in Christ, we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him.

Eph. 3:14-15 ~~ A bit of rhetorical wordplay, since the Greek word for "father" is similar to "family."

Eph. 3:14-19 ~~ Paul humbled that God grants: power of Spirit, riches of glory, indwelling of Christ, grace to comprehend and know God's love, "that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God."

Eph. 3:16 ~~ "Strengthened... in the inner man" (later passages translate similar phrases "inner self")

Eph. 3:18-19 ~~ "Comprehend" (grasp the magnitude of) and "know" (experience personally) the love of Christ. Paul distinguishes rational and experiential modes of learning and knowing.

Eph. 3:20-12 ~~ A mini-doxology, praising God for His power working within us.

Eph. 4:1-3 ~~ Thematic transition: "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord" by living out these virtues: humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance in love, diligence, unity in the Spirit, peace of God.

Eph. 4:4-6 ~~ Quality of unity applies to body, Spirit, hope, calling, Lord, faith, baptism, and God.

Eph. 4:6 ~~ God the Father of all, over all, through all, in all. This reveals three characteristics of God: his transcendence and supremacy, his omnipresence, and his immanence.

Eph. 4:7-16 ~~ Discussion of gifts and unity in the body of Christ clearly parallels 1 Corinthians 12.

Eph. 4:9 ~~ This is one instance in which the interpretation of a passage clearly and directly affects one's view of a particular theological doctrine; in this case, whether Christ descended to hell during the three days between His death and resurrection. One's answer largely depends on the meaning one ascribes to the phrase "lower parts of the earth." Sheol was typically considered to be subterranean in Hebrew cosmology, as was Hades in Greco-Roman understanding. On the other hand, considering the heavenly heights from which Christ descended, even a life of the surface would be the "lower parts."

Eph. 4:11-12 ~~ Four classes of spiritual gifts, often conflated, which Paul distinguishes between. They are united in two works -- equipping of the saints for works of service, and building up of the church -- but have different functions. Apostles are those who plant churches and encourage leaders; prophets are those who restore churches and rebuke leaders; evangelists are those who expand existing churches and introduce new members; and pastors are those who develop churches and help members mature.

Eph. 4:13 ~~ Unity of faith and knowledge of Christ bring us to "measure of stature" that belongs to the fullness of Christ ("until we all attain to a mature man")

Eph. 4:17-18 ~~ Warning against the Gentiles' "futility of mind" (cf. Romans 1:21-22). They were "darkened in understanding... because of the hardness of their hearts." Emotional receptivity to truth found in faith directly correlates to receptivity to truth found by reason.

Eph. 4:19 ~~ A rather ironic statement of sin: the Gentiles, "having become callous," abandoned themselves to sensuality as a result. By losing their moral center, their souls were numbed to the aesthetic and erotic pleasures, making them more desperate to recover those pleasures, and driving them further away from what enabled them to enjoy them.

Eph. 4:22-24 ~~ Three stages or parts of conversation: "lay aside the old self," "be renewed in the spirit of your mind," and "put on the new self, in the likeness of God." Most exhortations to convert in the New Testament don't really include the middle step, which is quite a fascinating addition by Paul.

Eph. 4:26 ~~ Asserts concept of righteous wrath, for not all anger is sinful (cf. Psalms 4:4)

Eph. 4:26-27 ~~ Emphasizes forgiveness as immunization against spiritual warfare (cf. Matthew 5:23)

Eph. 4:28 ~~ Defends labor, capital, private property with a view towards enabling philanthropy.

Eph. 4:29 ~~ Exhorts to speak only edifying words (cf. Plato's Phaedrus, "noble rhetoric")

Eph. 4:30 ~~ My Bible comments that "Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God" necessarily entails that the Holy Spirit is of a personal nature. I find this argument questionable. I agree with the doctrine; I just don't think you can find it here, where the object includes God the Father. God sealed us for the day of redemption by his Holy Spirit; therefore, we are not to grieve either one by our misconduct.

Eph. 4:31-32 ~~ Avoid bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice. Live with a spirit of kindness, tender-heartedness, and forgiveness.

Eph. 5:1-2 ~~ Imitate Christ who "gave Himself up for you" (direct parallel to Ephesians 5:25)

Eph. 5:3-9 ~~ Saints ought not indulge in filthiness, silly talk, or coarse jesting, but should speak with thanksgiving. Three sins are so serious they "must not even be named among you" -- immorality, impurity, and greed (covetousness), which are defined as mere variants of idolatry. These three sins are the reason "the wrath of God falls on the sons of disobedience." They are sufficient for any who leads such a life to lose their "inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God." On the other hand, there are three virtues that are the "fruit of the Light" -- goodness, righteousness, and truth. It seems these are meant to parallel the list of three sins, as to provide the antidote to such idolatry.

Eph. 5:11-13 ~~ We are to expose the sins of others, not by speaking of them publicly, but by leading such Godly lives in comparison that their moral failures cannot be obscured.

Eph. 5:14 ~~ This verse ("For this reason it says...") is a mystery to me. It may be an early hymn of the church. Alternately, the passage may read "For this reason He says," in which case it may be a prophetic utterance or a saying of Christ passed down by oral tradition in the early church, but which did not enter the Gospel accounts.

Eph. 5:15-18 ~~ A series of contrasts, advocating prudence (the conduct of a wise man), industry (making the most of your time), and discernment.

Eph. 5:19-20 ~~ To be filled with the Spirit is to be "making melody with your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks" and speaking in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

Eph. 5:21 ~~ Submission is a universal command for all in the church.

Eph. 5:22 - 6:9 ~~ This is easily the most controversial passage in Ephesians, and one of the more challenging passages in the New Testament. A few notes that I've found helpful in my own interpretation of these verses. First, these pieces of counsel (whether advice or command) are directed towards specific groups and individuals within the Church. Each section intended for a specific audience and no other (the section to wives is not meant for husbands, and vice versa). Specifically, they are meant as challenges, designed to edify each person's soul in areas of special growth. It is good if we seek to follow Paul's counsel, as it will benefit and educate us greatly; however, these verses cannot be used as bargaining chips or used to demand deference from fellow Christians.

Eph. 5:22-32 ~~ In a much longer controversial passage, this is probably the most challenging subsection. Essentially, Paul argues that the marriage relationship parallels Christ and the Church. The Church (the Bride, feminine role) is called to submit to God, while Christ (the Groom, masculine role) is giving Himself up for the Church. Paul extrapolates this same relationship to a more domestic level in which feminine and masculine roles interacted regularly.

Eph. 5:22 ~~ The counsel to wives to "submit... as to the Lord" is not a command to worship their husbands. Submission is an act of service and love, performed as a gift of worship to the Lord. Also, note that all Christians are called to submit to each other; i.e., all other Christians. Wives are called to be more deliberate and dedicated in applying this virtue to their husbands.

Eph. 5:25 ~~ The counsel to husbands to "love... as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her" is a command to be entirely self-sacrificing. Wives may submit with action, but husbands are called to submit and love with their very being. Husbands follow Christ's example with the church, even if it means they go willingly to their death. As my Bible comments, rather obliquely, "To give oneself up to death for the beloved is a more extreme expression of devotion than the wife is called on to make." I find this to be a bit of an understatement.

Eph. 5:26 ~~ Apparently there's some doctrinal issues involved in "the washing of water with the word." For more information, see John 3:5 & 15:3, Titus 3:5, James 1:18, and 1 Peter 1:23 & 3:21.

Eph. 5:28-29 ~~ Paul makes an interesting point about how "no one ever hated his own flesh." There are some vices that come naturally to us, grounded in our very nature as human beings, including the vice of pride. Other sins, such as self-loathing, are thoroughly 'unnatural vices' that rebel against our human instincts. I would argue it is better to live with natural vices than unnatural vices, if only because more people struggle with the former, and it is therefore easier to find support and counsel.

Eph. 5:33 ~~ This summary re-emphasizes the point that these counsels apply for specific individuals. It is interesting the contrast between wives called to "submit" (v. 22) as opposed to "respect" (v. 33). "Respect" is literally the same word for "fear," as in "fear of the Lord," which may have been Paul's point. Finally, a small parenthetical remark may shed some light of Paul's rhetorical strategy. He writes that "each individual among you also is to love his own wife..." implying that the audience is male. His listeners therefore have an expectation that he will support their authority over wives. Paul's strategy was to first emphasize the submission of wives using the metaphor of Christ and the Church, which would appeal to men (especially Jewish converts) who viewed women as a lower order of being. However, once Paul established the parallel, he turned the metaphor on the men and told them that, if they expected their wives to submit as to Christ, they had better start acting like Christ by practicing self-sacrificial love. In this light, it's an exceptionally clever strategy, and probably caught Paul's audience completely off guard on first reading.

Eph. 6:1-3 ~~ command to children: respect parents (and the authority and traditions they represent) for your own good. In the immortal words of Ben Franklin, "Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from everyone else's."

Eph. 6:4 ~~ command to fathers: exercise patience in treatment of children, but with firm instruction. Again the emphasis seems to be on moral education and tradition.

Eph. 6:5-9 ~~ In these verses on slavery, Paul seeks to redeem the system by addressing and renewing the virtue of individuals acting within it (see also the book of Philemon). This does not mean that Paul accepts slavery as morally praiseworthy, nor that he rejects it as morally deficient. This passage is neutral in evaluating the institution; its focus is on the individuals.

Eph. 6:5-8 ~~ command to slaves: serve God by serving their earthly master, cultivating virtue, and with an eye for storing up treasures in heaven.

Eph. 6:9 ~~ command to masters: imitate your slaves!!! Perform the same deeds, but with an emphasis on avoiding wrongdoing and averting the wrath of God.

Eph. 6:10-11 ~~ "Be strong in the Lord" (Mars, persona of strength, inspiration for concept of armor, spiritual warfare). Rely on God's might in combating evil.

Eph. 6:12 ~~ Speaking personally, I am profoundly uncomfortable with the concept of spiritual warfare. However, verses such as these are pretty unequivocal that spiritual warfare occurs, and that we as Christians need to take it seriously.

Eph. 6:13-14 ~~ To stand firm "in the evil day," we require the armor of God and every fiber of our being ("having done everything"). This is no picnic.

Eph. 6:14-17 ~~ The Armor of God:
(1) "Gird your loins" -- Truth -- the basics, care for one's own soul
(2) "'Breastplate" -- Righteousness -- heart, will, spirit (C.S. Lewis: "the Chest")
(3) "Shod your feet" -- Gospel of Peace -- faith journey, evangelism
(4) "Shield" -- Faith -- protection of whole being (against arrows of all-consuming fire)
(5) "Helmet" -- Salvation -- protection of mind (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:8)
(6) "Sword" -- Spirit, Word of God -- offensive weapon, vs. sin and sinners

Eph. 6:18-19 ~~ "Pray at all times in the Spirit, with this in view" -- that is, in light of spiritual warfare. "Be vigilant with all perseverance and petition for all the saints." I believe this verse is sometimes construed to justify 'praying' to the saints. I think reasonable arguments can be made for the doctrine, but its foundations are not found in this passage. "Petition" is not a verb in this instance, but a noun; our vigilance is expressed by prayers for the saints, rather than supported by prayers of the saints.

Eph. 6:24 ~~ "love... with incorrigible love." An ironic ending, in light of Revelation 2:4, a letter from John addressed to the angel of the church at Ephesus: "But I have this against you, that you have left your first love".

Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with incorrigible love.

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