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

In the last post, we saw how Ephesus, and Asia Minor more generally, was a place that took spiritual power of all kinds — gods and goddesses, angels and demons, blessings and curses, and all of the spells, incantations, potions, amulets and charms one could use to manipulate them — very seriously. This likely provided the context into which Paul wrote the letter to the churches in this region, which we call Ephesians.

Today I’d like to turn to how Paul addresses this context in the letter and explore the following questions:

  • How does knowledge connect with cosmic, or metaphysical, themes?
  • Why does Paul focus on a ‘theology of glory’ in this passage?

Cosmic Knowledge

With this highly creative and rough-and-tumble religious context in mind, what does Paul see as the most pressing thing for the churches of Asia Minor? Knowledge, wisdom, and revelation — specifically, “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of [God].” All three of these terms had long roots in both Jewish and pagan religion and philosophy; and, as we saw with pleroma last week, all would soon take on a new wealth of meanings in Gnostic Christianity and later developments in Greek philosophy. In a world soaked with many competing claims about the mysteries of the universe, Paul is staking his claim on the Gospel’s behalf. Much has been said about whether this ‘spirit of wisdom’ refers to a human capacity or to the Holy Spirit. To my mind, it’s a false dichotomy: The Holy Spirit in some way animates all things and is always the source of true wisdom; and, for the faithful, the Holy Spirit instructs and illumines all of our faculties in a special way. So I see it as a prayer for the Holy Spirit to do its illuminating work upon the human spirit, such that the words of the prophet Isaiah are fulfilled in all of the faithful:

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him:
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
(Isaiah 11.2)

The same Spirit that Isaiah prophesied would come upon the Messianic king now dwells within those who live ‘in him’, and imparts its gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and power.

Verses 1.18-19 provide the content of this wisdom. Having their hearts (remembering that in Semitic usage, ‘heart’ refers to the whole perceptive and thinking person and not just to the emotions) enlightened by the Spirit, Paul wants them to know three things: 1) the nature of the hope of their calling; 2) the value God places in them as God’s inheritance (i.e., chosen people); and 3) the power God has displayed on their behalf. Hope was a major theme in Paul’s teaching, and one that is very relevant to Paul’s discussion here of spiritual power; as Klyne Snodgrass put it:

Hope was as rare a commodity in the first-century world Paul addressed as it is today. Fate, determinism, and despair dominated the ancient world. People had little hope of being able to better their situation. A common epitaph read, “I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care.” … People felt manipulated by unseen forces, and religion was a only [sic] way to find protection from bad luck, sickness, and evil powers.*

Against the weight of a fatalistic and often hopeless world, Paul insists that the faithful in Christ have hope in their calling as God’s own.

The next expression — ‘the wealth of the glory of God’s inheritance in the saints’ — is complicated but more in the foreignness of its grammar than in its message; simply put, Paul wants his readers to know that when God looks at the inheritance the faithful represent, God considers Godself wealthy.

And finally, the theme that will govern the rest of the prayer: Paul wants them to understand the ‘all-surpassing greatness of the power’ God has demonstrated on our behalf. To underscore this, Paul stacks four near-synonyms in 1.19: dynamis (power), energeia (power-in-action, operation, work), kratos (strength, personal power), and ischys (strength). This chain is amplified by megethos (greatness, magnitude), which is itself amplified by hyperballon (’all-surpassing’). Clinton E. Arnold’s research suggests this may not have been done just for emphasis; this type of synonym stacking is not common, and one of the rare places where it has been seen is in Jewish magical texts — one relevant text lists three of the four terms Paul uses here. And, while hyperballon is not found in Greek Old Testament, it is found in religious inscriptions from Ephesus and in Egyptian magical texts. It seems likely then that Paul is intentionally using cultic and magical language to underscore the superiority of God’s power as revealed in Jesus and undermine alternative claims: There is all-surpassing power in the universe over the fates and spirits, but that power belongs to God, the Father of Jesus Christ. There is no need for angelic intermediaries, magical formulas, sigils, charms, or rituals in the face of a hostile world; all that is needed is to understand and appropriate the blessings God has enacted for us.

God’s Power in Action

The rest of this passage is taken up by a discussion of five specific ways God has acted to demonstrate the ‘all-surpassing greatness of God’s power’. The focus is not on power for power’s sake, but on the working out in history of God’s plan — the plan that had been the focus of the blessing in 1.3-14.

First, there is the resurrection of Jesus. This is the heart of the Christian proclamation: Christ is risen! But, as Ralph P. Martin helpfully points out, in the Scriptures, the emphasis in the resurrection stories is on its signaling a new era, rather than on Jesus himself:

The New Testament writers invariably place the emphasis on God’s action leading to the new age of messianic triumph rather than on Jesus’ own emergence to new life. “He was raised” more than “he rose” is the way of expressing the mystery which is not the reanimation of a corpse but the taking up of Jesus’ humanity into God’s eternal purposes in a “spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:44–49; Phil. 3:21).

A similar emphasis is found in the second divine act of power, the ascension. While the ascension has taken a back seat in a lot of Christian theology, especially since the Reformation, it was a key theme in the original Christian witness, as can be seen in such verses as Acts 2.33 and 5.31, as the completion of what the resurrection began. The ascension of Jesus was understood by the first Christians to be his enthronement. It means that he sits at the Father’s side; as I’ve previously articulated it, the ascension means that “the man Jesus is where God is, sits where God sits, reigns where God reigns.” This is demonstrated by the fact that the most commonly quoted piece of Scripture in the New Testament (upwards of thirty times) is Psalm 110, an enthronement song that begins: “The LORD says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’”

This verse introduces the third and fourth divine acts Paul highlights here. The Father ‘seats’ Jesus at his side. In the ancient world, being seated was a symbol of authority (think of the meaning of a throne); the ruler would sit and their subjects would stand. Here, Jesus is seated beside the Father, indicating that he is ruling alongside the Father. His status as ruler is emphasized in the next verse, which lists all of the different types of power over which Christ has been given authority: he is “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. And [God] has placed all things under his feet.

Some — both in Paul’s day and throughout history, including today — have found this list, and others that circulated not only in the Scriptures but also in apocalyptic writings and magical systems, fascinating, wondering over questions like: Do these terms refer to different ranks of angels or demons or both? Are they necessarily evil, or can they be good or indifferent? Do they refer only to spiritual beings or are human power structures are also in view? But, I think this level of curiosity misses the point Paul is trying to make. Paul isn’t creating a typology or hierarchy of ‘powers’ here. He makes this even more clear with his mention of the fourth divine action here: God has placed all of these under Christ’s feet. There is nothing that is outside of Christ’s authority, no matter what you call it, whether it’s good or evil, human or otherwise. The Scriptures testify to the existence of personal spiritual beings; and I have no doubt that spiritual forces are at work in our profoundly flawed human systems and structures, which even at their best only hint towards the true unity and justice for which we were created. And these spiritual realities and their manifestations in human politics and societies will try to twist our perception of reality and keep us captive — to fear, to self-centeredness, to pleasure and to all of the other things that, though not bad in and of themselves, can trap us and cause us to sin, to break faith with ourselves, our neighbours, and our God. Paul tells us, though, that none of these powers are more powerful than God. They may do damage, but these are just the death throes of powers who know they’ve been beaten.

The final divine activity around which Paul organizes this section is that God has “given [Jesus] as the head over everything in the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” Here we have an interesting riff on the image of the Church as the Body of Christ that Paul previously developed in 1 Corinthians 12.12-26 and Romans 12.4-5. Whereas in those passages, the emphasis was on the importance of each body part for the proper functioning of the whole, here Paul deploys the image to emphasize Christ’s role as ‘the ‘head’ of the body. As many commentators have pointed out, this different take on the metaphor is grounded in Hellenistic medicine, in which the head was understood to govern the body’s functioning. Yet the Church also represents the ‘fullness’ of Christ, who is said to fill everything in every way. We looked a bit at the ‘fullness’ language last week. Here we see how the word was starting to evolve to take on more metaphysical weight one might expect, though it’s still far from how it would be developed in later thought. At any rate, the sense here is that, in Clinton E. Arnold’s words, “the church is filled by Christ and is thus the “fullness” of Christ;” and, “as head of Spirit-filled church, Christ is engaging in a mission ‘to fill all things, things on earth and things in heaven.’”

This is a lofty teaching, one that can easily bend into triumphalism. This is unquestionably a theology of glory, with little overt reference to a theology of the cross to balance it out. There is no doubt that the Church across the centuries has often erred in this direction and often with horrific results for the world. It’s not surprising, then, that this section of Ephesians has garnered critical attention from postmodern readers. Jennifer G. Bird, for example, writes:

[T]he (weak) crucified Christ, has been replaced by a risen and all-powerful Christ, who is victorious over all other powers and rulers in the universe (1.19-23). The message of Jesus’ identification with the weak has been transformed into a ruling Christ to whom all things, and thus all people, are subject (1.22). Weakness is a human issue and is not an aspect of this ruler in the heavenly empire. In the process of the exaltation of Christ, Jesus loses that which made him human, and his followers are simply trading in one ruler for another!

Similarly, Elisabeth SchUssler-Fiorenza’s commentary on the passage focuses almost entirely on the shift in Paul’s use of the body metaphor, away from the more ‘democratic’ model of interconnectedness in the 1 Corinthians and Romans texts, and towards a more hierarchical model, which Paul will later pick up on and use to enshrine male dominance in the household code. She views this as a kind of hostile takeover of the Church-as-ekklesia model, which she roots in the ideas of the ‘body politic’ of free citizens, by an authoritarian sensibility.

I think this is a great example of the need for humility in our language about God, of how we may need to ‘unsay’ what we say about God because God is so far beyond the finitude of our language. We rely on symbolic language to talk about God, yet we need to be careful about deploying that language in different contexts, when talking about different aspects of God’s activity or character. Writing into a context that put a lot of stock in the idea of spiritual powers, Paul uses the language of power to insist that Christians do not need to worry about this realm, since all pale in comparison to the power that God has demonstrated in resurrecting and enthroning Jesus. It is a theology of glory because that is what the situation demanded. But, removed from that context, the language of power and glory needs to be balanced and reinterpreted through the whole witness of what God did in and through Jesus, and that includes the anti-power movements of the incarnation and the cross. A healthy Christianity needs both: a theology of the cross without the power of the resurrection and ascension is impotent and even masochistic; a theology of glory without the humility of the incarnation and the cross is easily twisted into triumphalism and power-grabbing. This is why the Philippians 2 hymn links the two movements:

being found in appearance as a human,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death
— even death on a cross.
Therefore God exalted him even more highly
and gave him the name that is above every other name,
so that at the name given to Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth
(vv 7b-10)

The same power dynamic Paul talks about here in Ephesians can be seen here, but is explicitly tied to Jesus’ humility. To put it in other words, the whole Christian message amounts to the idea that “Power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12.9).

And so, I see Paul’s discussion of power here not as problematic, but as incomplete; and that’s okay. We can’t expect the Scriptures to focus on the whole Gospel all of the time in every place. The language of power is only problematic if we don’t understand it through the lens of Jesus’ incarnation, teaching, and assassination.

Summary and Assessment

What we have in this reported prayer in Ephesians 1.15-23 is a declaration that God’s power is above all other possible power in the word. This power was demonstrated for the faithful in the resurrection and glorification of Jesus. We no longer need to worry about fate, the alignment of the stars, or the machinations of any angel or demon or social contagion. What we need is to understand this fully, to grow in this wisdom through the power of the Holy Spirit and trust that God is all that we need.

By way of assessment, we can draw a lot of inspiration and courage from Paul’s words here. Yet, there is always the risk of falling into the trap of triumphalism (itself one of the ‘principalities and powers’ whose power pales compared to Christ’s). If indeed we want our theology to be ecological — to make us good neighbours and stewards over creation — we need to do whatever we can to avoid this trap. We need to be willing to unsay what we say about God’s power by balancing it with the rest of the Gospel proclamation: that the way of our risen and exalted and all-powerful Lord is the way of humility, compassion, and grace for all.


* See the full bibliography for the series, here.

13 thoughts on “A Question of Power: Ephesians 1.15-23 (Part II)

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