It is customary for Paul’s letters to begin with an often dense exploration of the theological themes that he will unpack in the rest of the text. In this way, Ephesians is no exception, as 1.3-14, the passage we’ll look at today (and in the next few posts), is a single, complicated, two-hundred-word sentence in Greek and is undoubtedly one of the most theologically rich parts of the New Testament.
First, here is the text itself, in my own translation — which I’ve left intentionally awkward to reflect some of the quirks of the original:
(3) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ, (4) Just as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world that we might be holy and blameless before him in love;
(5) Having predestined us for adoption as his own children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with kindly disposition of his will, (6) to the praise of the glory of his grace, with which he has graced us in the Beloved, (7) in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the wealth of his grace (8) with which he has lavished us in all wisdom and understanding,
(9) Having made known to us the Mystery of his will, in accordance with his goodwill, which he has set in place in him, (10), unto the management of the fullness of the times: for all things to be recapitulated in Christ — in him, those in the heavens and upon the earth.
(11) In him we have also received our share, having been predestined in accordance with the intention of the one who puts all things into action in accordance with the counsel of his will, (12) so that we might be for the praise of his glory — we who have previously set our hope in Christ;
(13) In whom you have heard the word of truth, the Good News of your salvation,
And, having entrusted yourselves to whom, you have been sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,
(14) which is the deposit of our inheritance, for the redemption that makes us God’s possession, unto the praise of his glory.
As I read this section, three things really jumped out at me: First, I couldn’t help but be lifted up from ‘study’ and into praise and worship. This is no accident: this is a liturgical text and not a theological treatise. This has implications for what we can expect of it. Second, I noticed that the text seems to have a structure similar to our ancient Christian creeds, starting with statements about the Father, then moving on to the Son, before ending with the Holy Spirit. And third, I noticed the presence of some curious words that were important ideas in the Hellenistic and Roman philosophical and religious milieus — words like pleroma ‘fullness’ and mysterion ‘mystery’. The first two of these observations will guide today’s study. I’ll look at the third in a later post.
While Ephesians follows the Pauline pattern of starting with dense theology, it is unique in how it does it. It employs the form of a specific Jewish liturgical prayer known as a berakah, or blessing. These prayers outline God’s saving acts on behalf of the community of faith and bless God for having blessed them. Examples of this form can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Psalm 68.19 and 72.18), the Dead Sea Scrolls, and ancient Christian liturgies, and they remain common to this day in rabbinic Judaism, where they are used before meals, before undertaking a ritual act, or to offer praise for God’s goodness or justice.
The use of the berakah form sets this section of the letter apart as being worship. If we think back to the discussion of ‘reader response’ theory in my recent post on devotional reading of Scripture, communication — and especially writing — has a purpose; by framing this theologically rich text as a liturgical prayer, Paul is indicating that his purpose here is less to communicate information than to prompt worship in his readers. And for this reason, we shouldn’t expect a clear and concise exposition of Paul’s theology here. Which is a good thing, because we certainly don’t get one! I often jokingly refer to Paul’s writing as a “word salad” and this text is a prime example of this phenomenon. There is no real argument structure here; grammatically it’s one long, run-on sentence, moving from one idea to the next, stream-of-consciousness style. It’s even difficult to tell sometimes which clause a prepositional phrase (e.g., ‘in love,’ , ‘in accordance with …’) belongs with.
The important take-away from all this is that the main point of this entire section is simply the first half of 1.3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Everything that follows is the rationale for this blessing. As N.T. Wright notes, it is “a celebration of the larger story within which every single Christian story … is set.”*
Because of the lack of internal argument structure, there are a lot of ways the text of Ephesians 1.3-14 can be divided up. Klyne Snodgrass suggests organizing it around themes of God’s activity: blessing (1.3), predestining (1.5), and making known (1.9). Grant Osborne prefers to organize it around ‘five blessings of salvation’: election, redemption, the mystery of God’s will, the divine plan, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit. And, Ralph P. Martin suggests organizing it in a trinitarian way: the Father’s choice (1.3-6), Christ’s achievement (1.7-10), and God at work in the lives of the faithful (1.11-14). I’m sympathetic to the last of these, since this structure is reminiscent of the creeds and I too noticed this roughly Trinitarian framework. That said, in light of the unstructured nature of the passage, I prefer to look at the text based on its recurring elements within the blessing: the nature, motivation for, and consequences of God’s saving action ‘in Christ.’
1. What God has done in Christ
The blessing revolves around God’s activity ‘in Christ’. According to the text, God has:
- blessed us (1.3)
- chosen us (1.4)
- predestined us (1.5, 11)
- redeemed us (1.7, 14)
- made known to us (1.9)
Blessing is one of those words that we use without thinking much about. The best definition I can find is something like ‘a bestowal of favour’. This puts it in a similar range of meaning to grace. Here, we bless God because God has blessed us: our favour to God, expressed in worship and, as the rest of the letter indicates, in changed lives, is the result of God’s gracious activity on our behalf. This divine grace involves the second aspect of God’s activity in the blessing: God choosing us. The theological language for this idea is election and predestination, and these are difficult and controversial concepts that will require a separate post to unpack; but for today at least, from the perspective of the text, these are to be understood as essentially good things that God has done on our behalf and for our benefit. Next, having chosen us, God has redeemed us. Redemption, or deliverance, was a concept of ‘buying back’ that was often used when thinking about the freeing of slaves. In 1.7, redemption is equated with the forgiveness of sins, which is a major theme in Jesus’ teaching, even if it’s often more implicit in Paul. As Snodgrass rightly notes on the equating of the two concepts here:
Paul was more concerned with sin as a power or a tyrant than with specific erroneous acts … Paul’s thought is about release from sins and the indictment they bring. Because of grace Christians no longer live in sins or under their indictment. Instead they live in Christ.
Finally, God has acted to ‘make known’ to us: God’s actions in Christ are revelatory; specifically, they reveal “the Mystery of God’s will.” This to say that Jesus reveals the heart of God and what God was about in and through history, a plan which had been hidden in shadow and symbol before.
So then, this text tells us that God has had a plan from before the foundation of the world, a plan which has been enacted and revealed in and through Jesus.
2. God’s motivations in acting
If God has acted in this way, one may very well be prompted to as why. This text has a lot to say about God’s motivations, through the repetition of prepositional phrases beginning with kata ‘in accordance with’. From these we can get a good sense of what the text understands to be God’s character. God has acted “in accordance with”:
- God’s kindly disposition (1.5)
- the riches of God’s grace (1.7)
- the purpose of God who puts everything in motion (1.11)
- God’s will and determination (1.11, cf. 1.5)
These terms all fall into two ‘semantic domains,’ or realms of meaning. Will (thelema), purpose (prothesis), and determination (boule) are all practical expressions of God’s desire and plan. Simply put, God acted in this way because it expressed God’s greatest desire for the world; it was not accidental or spontaneous, but was intentional and expressive of who God is. The other terms, grace (kharis) and kindly disposition or goodwill (eudokia), both refer to God’s openheartedness towards creation. Verse 5 connects these two domains directly, saying that God’s actions in Christ were done in accordance with the “kindly disposition of God’s will.” Grace is God’s will in action. So, from 1.3-14, we see a God who acts in history and is motivated to do so by goodness and love. This is, I think, a helpful corrective to many of the harsher images of God that have tended to dominate Christian theology over the centuries — for example, those traditions where God acts because Law-breaking must be punished. We don’t get any inkling of such a theology here, only a theology in which God acts out of divine love.
3. Consequences of God’s activity
If God has indeed acted on our behalf out of grace and goodness, this has consequences for us, namely:
- spiritual blessing (1.3)
- holiness and blamelessness in love (1.4)
- adoption as God’s children (1.5)
- grace (1.6)
- redemption and forgiveness (1.7, 14)
- wisdom and insight, meaning knowledge of the Mystery of God’s will (1.8-9)
- the seal of the Holy Spirit (1.13)
- an inheritance (1.14)
We bless God because God has blessed us. We have received every spiritual blessing, which is described as being chosen for holiness and blamelessness. We discussed holiness — being set apart — in the first post, but here it is connected to the idea of blamelessness, or purity, and both are connected to love. ‘Blamelessness’ here is connected to Old Testament usage about God creating a people that, like animals set apart for sacrifice, were to be ‘without blemish’, but here it is baptized with the phrase “in love.” This is a succinct way of summarizing Jesus’ teaching on purity: it is not ritual or legalistic purity that matters, but purity of love; we don’t acquire blame for failing to perform the right sacred practices or fulfill the letter of the Law, but in failing to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Thus, here Paul echoes Jesus’ language that moves the concepts of holiness and blamelessness out of the ritual sphere and into the heart and human relationships.
The next consequence of God’s activity in Jesus is adoption. This is an important New Testament theological theme that has been under-emphasized in a lot of Christian theology. Adoption in the Roman world functioned differently than it does today; it was a way of legally allowing one’s property and titles to fall to someone who was not a biological son. This pragmatism should not lessen the strength of the image for us. If, as we saw in the last post, God is our good and generous Father, it is through the family-making power of adoption that this happens. The whole point of God’s choosing us is for there to be a people that bears the image and likeness of God in which we were created, which was restored in Jesus, and ‘in him’, is restored to us as his adopted siblings. This fullness of salvation, or shalom, is our shared inheritance, to which we are now entitled as God’s adopted children.
Having come to faith — that two-way relationship of trust — in Jesus, we have been “sealed with the Holy Spirit.” This is a wonderful image: In the ancient world, a seal was an official image impressed into wax, and it marked a document as conveying the authority of the sender. What marks those who are ‘in Christ’ as God’s own is the Holy Spirit, that long-promised gift that inspires, directs, and empowers the faithful. In the logic of the passage, this seal is the deposit, or down payment, of our full inheritance as the people of God. The Spirit is the first installment of that future promised life of God’s Kingdom. Because a faith-relationship is two-way, even as we receive this inheritance as God’s heirs through adoption, God receives us as God’s own people (see 1 Peter 2.9, cf., Deuteronomy 14.2).
God’s activity in Jesus also provides us with “wisdom and knowledge,” specifically of God’s will. Paul describes this in very specific ways that pick up on the vocabulary of contemporary pagan philosophy and religion. I’ll cover this more in a follow-up post. For now, the point is that Jesus’ life and death are revelatory.
So then, Ephesians 1.3-14 presents us with the picture of a God who has acted intentionally within history as an expression of love and grace; this divine activity has consequences for us, namely that we become God’s adopted children and heirs entitled to the full life of the Kingdom of God, of which the Holy Spirit is the first installment. There is at the very least a proto-Trinitarian framework in play here, as there is an interplay between the activity of the Father (here thought of in terms of planning and putting that plan into action), the Son (here, the agent and ‘location’ of this activity and the one in in whom the plan is revealed), and the Holy Spirit (here, the down payment that marks the faithful as God’s own and evidence that the plan has been enacted).
This Blessing at the start of Ephesians introduces the book’s two major themes, salvation and its consequences. Before ending, it’s important to ask whether the picture of the faith that we’re leaving with is a constructive one: Does it inspire spiritual growth? Does it expand awareness and empathy? And does it impact those around me positively or negatively? For me, the answer to this rests in the vocational aspect of it. We are chosen and called to be a holy and blameless people, and are empowered to become so — but it remains to be seen whether we will answer that call with faith. This is particularly true since, as much as Paul uses language the Scriptures had previously deployed in legalistic and sacrificial contexts, such as blamelessness or purity, he has re-read them through the lens of Jesus’ revolutionary teaching which upended these concepts. We see today so many Christians attempting to use their faith for purposes of power and control over others, rather than for purposes of love and grace. Moreover, the whole language of God’s choosing us raises big questions about what that means for those who aren’t ‘us’. Exclusive understandings of election have born a lot of bad fruit in the world, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and nationalist or racist agendas of all kinds. Yet, here, Paul understands election and predestination to be first-and-foremost sources of joy, thanksgiving, and praise.
So I’m leaving this post on the blessing of Ephesians 1.3-14 with half of an answer. On the one hand, as a liturgical text, it draws us out of our own individual experiences and into the bigger story of God’s activity on behalf of creation, and therefore into praise and thanksgiving. It also reminds us of all the wondrous things God has done for us, and offers us the opportunity — the vocation — to respond faithfully, with transformed lives. On the other hand, we need to put the language of election and predestination under the microscope to ensure it does not lead us down paths that are harmful to others. This will be the focus of the next post.
But for now, let’s end with the words that are the main point of the section we’ve looked at today:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
* See the series Bibliography for the series for details on all works cited.