Written by Pastor Ed
The Mystery Revealed – Ephesians
August 17, 2014
As we have been exploring Paul’s letters to the early church, certain themes continue to come to the fore, not surprisingly since some of the same issues kept presenting themselves. Last week, as we looked at Galatians, we noted the issue of law versus freedom. This week we look at the broader theme of unity in the church.
Now, the book of Ephesians presents some interesting, if not necessarily important, issues just as a piece of literature. For one thing, it is not clear exactly who it is addressed to. Most of the earliest copies, manuscripts, of Ephesians that we have do not include the words “in Ephasus.” While most of our translations do include those words, they were probably added later. So the letter is often called a “general epistle” which may have been written to be circulated among many churches.
Who wrote the letter is also often a debated point. While it begins by citing Paul, and that has been the traditional author, there are a number of factors that argue against Paul’s direct authorship and it was not unusual for someone to ascribe a document to another well-known person. So the writer may have bene Paul, or it may have been a disciple of Paul. One suggestion was that Ephesians was written as an introduction to the collection of Paul’s letters which were then circulated among the churches.
As I said, those are interesting questions that scholars debate, but that don’t really have any bearing on the message of the letter or its place in the canon of the New Testament. It is a letter filled with lofty language and broad concepts, and one major theme – the unity of the church, indeed not just of the church, but of all things. If there is a theme sentence in Ephesians it would be in Chapter 1, verses 9-10
“With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
Ephesus, and we will presume that is at least one of the places that received this letter, was a centre for Emperor worship. There were statues and altars to the emperor throughout the city. It was also a society with strict classes. Society was well regulated and people knew where they belonged. Jews were tolerated, although their refusal to engage in worship of the emperor made them suspicious and not well accepted in society at large. Thus, they tended to see themselves as a persecuted minority and huddle together, maintaining their own boundaries as well.
Into this mix Paul introduced the gospel of Jesus Christ which broke all kinds of rules, many of which are reflected in this letter. First of all, the letter opens with language that would have been very familiar to the readers, except that instead of praising the emperor, it was directed at Jesus Christ.
Right from the beginning, Jesus is described in words normally reserved for the emperor. It is Jesus, not the emperor who is seated at the right hand of God, and who is ascribed power “above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named…” (1:21) Later, it is to God alone that Paul bows his knees (3:14) a sign of respect again usually reserved for the rulers.
That, in and of itself would have marked the church as different, and even subject to persecution, but the gospel, as preached by Paul, went even further and suggested, even demanded that the walls separating people were also broken down by Jesus. Jews and Gentiles of all classes were now welcome into this new body of Christ.
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (2:14)
Where there had once been clear walls of separation, Christ had come to break down those walls and created one new humanity in place of the old separate groupings. So now, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (2:19)
This is the mystery that was hidden for so many years, namely that God intended for all people to come together in Christ. While for many generations people thought it was only the Jews who were God’s people, God had intended all along that all nations would be a part of God’s plan. And now that mystery was being revealed. And how was it being revealed? Through the church!
“so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (3:10)
Ephesians, perhaps more than any other of the letters, emphasizes the role of the church in God’s plan for the world. Jesus Christ reigns supreme and through him has brought into being this new creation called the church, the “ecclesia.” And this new thing called the church is to be the vehicle through which the gospel is to be proclaimed, and embodied – put into practice. And one of the main things that the church is to proclaim and model is the unity that comes through the Spirit.
In many ways this is the theme of the entire letter. Everything you do, particularly in the church, but also in the rest of your life as well, is to work at building up the unity of the body. Now Paul recognized that this is not always easy and so he cautions the readers to have humility and gentleness. Deal with each other with patience and bear with each other as you try to get along with people that you may not have associated with before. (4:2-3)
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (3:4-5)
That’s the bottom line. We’re all part of this unity which is the church and whatever gifts we bring or are given, whatever we do or say, should be for bringing into fullness this body of Christ. We are to become like Christ, who is the head. So even the way we treat our husbands and wives; how children and parents should interact, and even how slaves and masters are to now treat each other should all be governed by the fact that we are now all members of the same body and the dividing walls have bene broken down.
People should see a new reality modeled by those who claim Christ as Lord. There should be a mutual respect for others, especially within the church. And a Christian’s life should reflect a different way of living, not given over to pleasure and evil, but rather in doing good, love for all, and joyful worship. The Christian is to be clothed with the armour of God an armour consisting of truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, and faith. If you’re going to brandish a sword, let it be the sword of the word of God.
In other words, not the weapons of the emperor and society, but rather those things which can be brandished in love. For the author recognizes that the forces at work in society go far beyond people, flesh and blood, as he puts it. There are the norms and pressures of society which work to conform us to them. There is what Dwight Eisenhower termed the military-industrial complex, there is social media, all of which influence how people act and react in the world around us.
But the church is supposed to respond and act differently. We are to model something for the world to see that looks different from society around us, and the big difference is to be in our unity.
Unfortunately, that is something we still struggle with. For all the talk of unity and all the attmepts that have bene made over the years, the church of Jesus Christ is still a very fragmented place, in so many ways. Not only are we divided into many denominations, but we have trouble even within any one denomination displaying the unity that Ephesians calls for.
Mennonite Church Canada has been involved in a process over the past 6 years to talk about what it means to be a faithful church in the midst of disagreement. Rather than starting from a premise that we are divided, it begins with the premise that we are indeed, part of a united body of Christ. We claim one Lord and one baptism. So the question before us is not, how can we be united, but rather how do we live out that unity when we disagree about things, in this case around issues of sexuality.
How can we speak to each other in love? How can we show patience and humility toward each other? How can we not act toward each other in the ways that society around us expects us to act when we disagree- with name-calling, bitterness, and anger, which Ephesians says we are to do away with. Perhaps if we spent more time reading the passages of Scripture that talk about how we are to treat each other, and less time finding proof-texts for our positions, it would be a start.
Paul recognizes that it will take more than just our strength alone to conquer the forces at work around us and so he appeals constantly to the Spirit at work within the body. It is only when we have put on the armour of God and walk in the Spirit that we will be able to fulfill this unity. And it will take prayer. And, in the middle of the letter, is an elegant prayer for the church, recognizing that it is only with God’s help, the one who can do far more than we can even imagine, that the church will be able to accomplish its task. And so I close with those words.
“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (3:15-21)