Ephesians 1.3-14 is a liturgical blessing in praise of what God has done for us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But, throughout the Blessing, Paul uses a lot of vocabulary that is unusual in the New Testament and that, put together, sets it apart as being particularly ‘cosmic’ in scope. Though the teaching of Jesus is by no means absent, the focus here is less on Jesus’ earthly life than on his exalted status following his resurrection and ascension — and the consequences of this belief for what we might call ‘spirituality’ writ large. Today I’d like to take some time to unpack some of this language and what its use here might say about the context into which Paul was writing.
The ‘Heavenlies’ and Hellenistic Cosmology
This first ‘cosmic’ language appears at the start of the passage with the reference to “the heavenlies” (1.3), a distinctive term in Ephesians that recurs at least four times. The usage in this blessing precludes any idea that this is meant to be a reference to blessings experienced in an afterlife, as Christians commonly imagine it today. (In actual fact, the afterlife imagined by most Christians has very little to do with what is said about it in the Scriptures and early Christian theology!) Instead, ‘the heavenlies’ here refers to the types of blessings available to the faithful ‘in Christ’ in the here and now. With its related and more common term ‘the heavens’, it is often contrasted with ‘the things on earth’ (1.10, 3.15, 4.9, and 6.3). This contrast bears at least a surface resemblance to the dualism that was emerging within the Middle Platonism of the time, which viewed the world through a dichotomy of the spiritual and material, the former of which was associated with God and goodness and the latter their absence. While trafficking in this sort of language, it’s clear that Paul does not share this dualism that would come to define Greek philosophy during the Roman Empire. In 1.10 for example, Paul pairs ‘the heavens’ with ‘the things on earth’ to refer to the whole created world over which Christ is exalted. The point here is that, while Paul may use the language of these two spheres, he insists that Christ is Lord of them both. (This point will become important when we look at the next section of text, 1.15-23.)
The concept of wisdom appears in Ephesians 1 in a fairly straightforward way. However, wisdom, or perhaps better, Wisdom, was an important idea in the late biblical and Hellenistic periods, and some scholars — particularly those of a postmodern and feminist orientation — wonder if we should consider this wider Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean Wisdom tradition here. I’m not convinced we need to look beyond the basic sense of ‘wisdom’ to understand how it’s conceptualized in Ephesians, however it is helpful to remember the larger context of the Wisdom tradition — especially since so much of what is to come later in Ephesians is at least as representative of the style and content of wisdom literature as it is of ancient letter-writing.
The figure of Divine Wisdom is imagined in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom as a quasi-personal figure who was involved in creation (Proverbs 8.27-31; Wisdom 9.9), creates justice (Proverbs 8.12-21), and provides counsel (Wisdom 8.4-6). This image of Wisdom in these texts bore striking resemblance to some pagan traditions, particularly those of the cult of Isis, which was Egyptian in origin but which became a popular religious export during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. What unites these images is that they think of Wisdom as a cosmic, feminine figure who was to return in a new way to usher in a new age — for the Jewish population, the messianic age, which is why it may be relevant here. In light of this, and of the cosmic language Paul has used elsewhere in the letter, Paul may be referring to this larger conception of Wisdom, when he connects wisdom with the revelation of God’s plan. Later in chapter 3, he will similarly associate wisdom with a revelation of God’s power to the principalities and powers. Again, I don’t think this broader conception of Wisdom adds too much for the purposes of this passage, but it can be helpful to have a sense of the larger range of meanings and understandings of the words used in the Scriptures. (If this discussion interests you, I strongly suggest Elisabeth SchUssler Fiorenza’s commentary in the Wisdom series.*)
The Mystery of God
The next use of contemporary religious vocabulary in our text is mysterion, or ‘mystery’, in 1.9. While today we think of a ‘mystery’ as a puzzle to be solved, in the ancient world — and in theology writ large — it refers to the most profound depths of truth that can never be fully known, and to rituals through which one can approach this truth. The cosmopolitan world of the first century saw a huge influx of new ‘Eastern’ religious movements, many of which claimed to offer the key to this Mystery. In the last century, it was common for Greco-Roman scholars to discuss Christianity as one of these ‘mystery religions’, largely because of texts like this. But, while these days are more or less over (the whole notion of a ‘Mystery Religion’ is itself increasingly in doubt), it remains that this energized, creative, highly competitive, and fluctuating religious environment provided part of the social context of Christianity’s beginnings. And so, it’s not surprising that Paul uses the religious language of the day. (As it happens, what the Western Church calls ‘the sacraments’ are called ‘the mysteries’ in Eastern Christianity to this day.)
But, while Paul uses the language of Mystery, he twists it for his own purposes; the Mystery is no longer secret, but has been revealed in and through Christ. And, typical to the ways the idea was used in apocalyptic strands of Judaism, for Paul the Mystery is entirely about God’s will, purposes and plan for creation. Specifically, he defines the Mystery as being “for all things to be recapitulated in Christ, in him, those in the heavens and upon the earth.” This is a ‘Cosmic Christ’ indeed!
This language of recapitulation is a bit strange to our ears, but, as we saw in the post on election and predestination, it was a common way the New Testament and early Christian theology understood how Jesus’ life ‘fulfilled’ Jewish sacred history. Literally, it means something like ‘bring things under a common head’, but through its use in literature, where they used the word for ‘head’ similar to how we use ‘heading’, it came to mean ‘summarize’. (We see this in Romans 13.9, where the Law is said to be ‘recapitulated’ in the words “Love your neighbour as yourself.”) There is some question about how ‘live’ this metaphor was in Paul’s day; it’s largely believed that it was a ‘dead metaphor’, but its usage here meshes really well with how Paul deploys ‘headship’ language later on (4.15, 5.23). But this is another of those unanswerable questions; whether we understand it as bringing everything in creation under Jesus’ headship, or simply as Jesus ‘summing up’ created existence, the point is that “He is the focal point that gives all creation coherence” (Snodgrass); or, that “in Christ the entire universe will one day find its full explanation and rationale” (Martin).*
This revelation of God’s will is then described as “the management of the fullness of the times.” This is a strange expression and it includes two pieces of vocabulary that deserve some comment. First, the word translated here as ‘management’ is oikonomia (from which we derive our modern word, ‘economy’), and it referred to the proper designation and deployment of household resources. It was all about how a household was run and — fascinatingly — it was part of the women’s sphere of life. Men did not concern themselves with oikonomia, women did. So even here where we have this image of Christ’s mastery over “all things in the heavenlies and on earth”, we have right alongside it an image of God as the ‘Lady of the House.’
Pleroma, or Fullness
Finally, the word ‘fullness’, pleroma, is important to discuss, less for how Paul uses it than for how it would later be developed. Here it’s used in the customary way words related to it (particularly the verb pleroo, ‘I fill’) are used in the New Testament: to describe how what God has done in Jesus has fulfilled, or ‘filled up’ Jewish salvation history. The idea here being that Jesus brought God’s plans for history to completion. But in the next section (1.15-23), we’ll see that this noun has already begun to take on some metaphysical properties, especially when related to divinity, that may colour its use here. Pleroma would become an important concept in both Gnostic Christianity (2nd century) and Neoplatonist philosophy (starting in the 3rd century). In these systems, pleroma would mean something like ‘the highest reaches of pure spirit,’ or ‘the completeness of divine properties as opposed to the void of non-existence’ (cf. the section above on dualistic language). While some have used Paul’s use of pleroma in Ephesians and Colossians to suggest that these were proto-Gnostic writings, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it had this technical philosophical meaning anywhere at the time Paul was writing. It seems more likely that Paul’s extension of the term (e.g., “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1.19)) is rooted in some fixed Old Testament expressions relating God’s presence and power with places being “full of God’s glory” (Ezekiel 44.4; Isaiah 6.1; Jeremiah 23.24). This Pauline use then created the space for it develop its greater significance — and dualism — in Gnostic Christianity.
As we’ve seen, the Blessing in Ephesians 1.3-14 revolves around God’s intention and plan for us; the language he uses, which has ties to contemporary (and later) philosophical and religious ideas in the broader society, emphasize that this has a cosmic dimension. What is in view is less the salvation of individual souls than it is the reunification of God’s divided and broken creation in Christ. This is an important aspect of the Gospel, which should expand our awareness away from simply the myopic concerns of our own lives and personal salvation to include the full implications of God’s grace for the whole creation, human and nonhuman alike. We are long past due for a strong recovery of this doctrine, for there is no oikonomia without oikologia — there is no economy without ecology.
This cosmic dimension of Jesus’ work will come into the fore once again in the next section of the text.
* See the series Bibliography for the series for details on works cited.