A Question of Power: Ephesians 1.15-23 (Part I)

After having spent a few posts on the blessing in Ephesians 1.3-14, it’s finally time to move on to the next section. Here, in 1.15-23, Paul returns to his normal form, with a prayer that both intercedes on behalf of the letter’s recipients and outlines some of the theological themes for the book to come:

(15) For this reason I, having heard of the faith you’ve placed in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, (16) I do not cease giving thanks for you, making a memorial upon my prayers:(17) That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, might give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him — (18) that with the eyes of your hearts enlightened, you might know what is the hope of your calling, what is the wealth of the glory of God’s inheritance in the saints, (19) and what is the all-surpassing greatness of his power for us who are faithful, in accordance with the working of the might of his strength, (20) which he has worked in Christ by raising him from the dead, and seating him at his right hand in the heavenlies, (21) above every ruler and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. (22) And he has placed all things under his feet, and given him as the head over everything in the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

If the blessing in 1.3-14 focused primarily on God’s plan and how it was enacted in Jesus for our benefit, the prayer here picks up the cosmic implications of that plan. As I read it, I could not help but notice the focus on divine power, especially in verse 19 with its piling on of near synonyms — greatness, power, might, and strength. To use Luther’s turns of phrase, what we have here in 1.15-23 is clearly a ‘theology of glory’ rather than a ‘theology of the cross.’ This focus is a bit unusual for Paul (and as we’ve seen previously, this is one of the points that some scholars have pointed to as reason for questioning Paul’s authorship). And so these are the questions that will guide today’s study:

  • What, if anything, can we understand from the form of this passage as a prayer?
  • Is there anything we can know about the religious, social, or political context of Asia Minor that might be helpful in understanding why Paul focuses on knowledge and power in his prayer?
  • How does knowledge connect with cosmic, or metaphysical, themes?
  • Why does Paul focus on a ‘theology of glory’ in this passage?

In the interest of space, I’ll look at the first two of these questions today, and turn to the third and fourth questions in the next post.


Like the blessing previous section, this prayer is comprised of a single, complicated sentence in Greek — this one finishes at 169 words. This evokes the structure of contemporary Jewish and early Christian liturgical prayer. At the same time, this is not a recorded prayer, but reported prayer. This is to say, Paul isn’t so much praying here as he is telling his audience what he prays about. So, the goal is not communion with God or to intercede on behalf of the Christians in Asia Minor; rather it is to encourage those Christians by letting them in on his hopes and dreams for them.

What are these hopes and dreams? Having heard of their faith and love, Paul continuously prays that God would give them knowledge and wisdom, specifically about the basis of their hope, their glorious status as God’s inheritance (picking up on the theme of the previous section), and the power that God has demonstrated on their behalf in and through the person of Jesus.

Why might this spiritual knowledge have been top of mind for Paul?

Contextual Clues

Unlike some of Paul’s other letters, there is nothing within Ephesians to indicate he was writing to address a specific problem or crisis. What we have instead is a major metaphysical theme of “life in Christ.” Here in 1.15-23 that theme is discussed in terms of spiritual knowledge and God’s power over spiritual forces. Why might this be?

We saw in a recent post that the early Empire was marked by a lot of new religious energy. This was particularly true in the major urban centres, which like our big cities today, were cosmopolitan places where different cultures and ideas mixed.* Ephesus, which was at the time the third-largest city in the Roman Empire, was one of the greatest examples of this. It was an important Greek city, and its temple of Artemis was not only one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but also a major economic and cultural force in the area. Beyond the Greek cultural layer, Asia Minor contained a significant remnant of indigenous Anatolian (Ionian, Lydian, and Phrygian) cultural and religious practices. According to Josephus, Ephesus also housed a large and well-established Jewish community. And, as a centre of trade, it also saw an influx of immigrants from other wealthy trading hubs such as Alexandria and Rome. Even just thinking about institutional religions, Ephesus in the first century was reported to have over fifty temples. In other words, if an idea or practice existed within the Roman Empire, it existed in Ephesus.

Over the past three decades, evangelical scholar Clinton E. Arnold has presented a compelling perspective on how specific aspects of religious life in the city may have impacted the themes of Ephesians (see his commentary in the bibliography for this series, and also his book Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians). The cult of Artemis at Ephesus worshiped her with titles such as “Queen of Heaven,” “Lord”, and “Savior,” and it emphasized her power over spirits and fate. She was often pictured with the signs of the zodiac as ornaments subject to her authority, and there was a big business in the making and selling of amulets and charms to ward off sickness or curses. The Acts of the Apostles reports that Paul’s early ministry in Ephesus drew a lot of interest — and converts — from Artemis’s devotees (see Acts 19.23-41). Both within Artemis-worship and outside of it, magic played a significant role in Ephesian religious life. As Arnold concludes:

The practice of magic was predicated on a worldview that recognized the widespread presence and influence of good and evil spirit powers on every area of life. Magic represented a means of harnessing spiritual power and managing life’s issues through rituals, incantations, and invocations.

Archaeological evidence for the prominence of magic in Ephesus includes the discovery of curse inscriptions, a fragment advertising a ‘magician’, references to a ‘chief diviner’ in the city, magical dice used in divination, and various charms and amulets. One particular type of local charm, known as ‘the Ephesian Letters’, was exported throughout the Roman world. Also common were amulets of Jewish origin, referencing early Solomonic magical beliefs, or listing the powers of Old Testament angels.

I’ll leave this discussion here, but it should suffice to say that Ephesus, and Asia Minor more generally, was a place that took spirituality in all its forms very seriously. This was especially true of practices which focused on power and manipulation of gods, spiritual forces, angels, and demons either to bless a practitioner with health, wealth, and influence, or to curse an enemy. Ephesus was therefore a place dominated by thoughts of what Paul calls “the principalities and powers.

All this strongly suggests that, even if there was no ‘crisis’ in the churches to which Paul was writing, the themes of knowledge and spiritual power were very relevant for them. It’s likely that the Christians there were very tempted to dabble in magical practices again. (As the continued practice to this day — despite at least 1,500 years of preaching against it — among Greek women of wearing charms warding off the ‘evil eye’ demonstrates, the allure of these types of magical practices is great.) And, as we will see in the next post, Paul makes use of some of the language and terminology found in the archaeological and literary evidence uncovered at Ephesus, making a connection between this context and Paul’s themes almost certain.

In the next post, we’ll look at what Paul has to say to Christians living in in that context.


* See the full bibliography for the series, here.

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