For the past two and a half weeks I’ve been reading the entire book of Ephesians at least once each day. According to this article from Crossway, an average reader can read the entire book of Ephesians in nineteen minutes, so it’s not as big of an undertaking as it may sound. This past Sunday I encouraged our church members to set a goal of reading Ephesians in one sitting at least once per week for the next six months, or however long the Ephesians sermon series takes us to finish.
This morning I started seeing returns on the “time investment” I’ve been making, when I noticed some connections in different parts of Ephesians that I don’t think I would have noticed had I not been reading it all in one sitting. This impressed on me the importance of reading a book (letter) like Ephesians as a whole and in context.
As an aside, I should add that I’ve been reading Ephesians primarily in the ESV Reader’s Bible, which has no chapter or verse numbers, footnotes, cross-references, and in a short letter like Ephesians, no headings. What it has is simply (and powerfully!) the text.
Let’s look at three examples: grace as a transforming power, the apostles and prophets, and rulers and authorities.
Grace as a transforming power
In Ephesians 1:15-23 Paul records his prayer for his readers, and in that prayer he asks God to grant that they would know three things (1:18-21). The third thing Paul is praying that his readers would know is how great God’s power is toward (on behalf of) believers, and this is the same power by which he raised Christ from the dead and then seated him at the Father’s right hand in heaven.
That same power is how he raises spiritually dead people to new life in Christ. If you’ve ever wondered why 2:1 starts with “And you were dead…,” that is why. Paul is making a connection between spiritually dead people being raised from the dead to new spiritual life and Christ being raised physically from the dead.
In 2:4-6 Paul writes, “But God . . . even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him . . .” God’s grace is not merely his unmerited (unearned) favor toward undeserving sinners like you and me, though it is not less than that; his grace is also the power that does the life-giving transforming work within us. This is why Paul states two times that “by grace you have been saved,” in verse 5 and in verse 8; he wants to drive that point home.
And we are never past or beyond needing God’s grace in our lives. Not only are we saved initially by grace, if his grace truly is God’s power “toward believers,” then the “power at work within us” that Paul praises God for in 3:20 is God’s grace at work within us.
Back to 1:19-20, why is Paul praying that believers would know that and how God’s power (grace) is at work in us? Because in 1:6 he writes about “the praise of [God’s] glorious grace.” The more we know and are aware of what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives by his grace, the more we will and should praise his glorious grace, which is essentially praising God for his grace. Theology (doctrine, teaching) properly understood leads to doxology (worship).
Apostles and prophets
If you were reading Ephesians 4:11-13 by itself you might think that apostles and prophets were still part of the church today, actively equipping the saints for the work of ministry and building up the body of Christ, along with the evangelists, shepherds (pastors) and teachers.
But if you had been reading all of Ephesians up to this passage you might have noticed that Paul had mentioned apostles and prophets in 2:19-20, where he writes that the “household of God,” which is the church, is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being the cornerstone.” The foundation of a building is not the entire building. It is not the floors, or the walls, or the ceilings, or the roof, or any other of the parts and pieces that make up a building structure. The foundation is laid and established once, with the rest of the building built on top of that foundation (cf. Matthew 16:18).
Paul mentions the apostles and prophets again in 3:5, saying that the mystery of Christ, the gospel, has “now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Paul reveals in verse six that the mystery of Christ “is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Considering all three of these passages together, it seems to me that the apostles and prophets were given by Christ for a set purpose and time, like the foundation of a building, and now that we have the New Testament written down and complete, the God-given task of the apostles and prophets is finished.
Rulers and authorities
In Ephesians 1:20-21 Paul writes that Christ has been seated at God’s “right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” Without reading through the entire letter, one might wonder what Paul means by “rule and authority and power and dominion.” Is he talking about earthly kings, emperors, governors, presidents, and so on? Or something else?
Our first hint comes in 2:2, when Paul writes that spiritually dead people are “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” This “prince” is almost certainly referring to Satan.
In 3:10 Paul states that through the church God’s wisdom is being “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
And finally in 6:12 Paul writes that “we do not wrestle against (contend with) flesh and blood (human beings), but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
So taking all four of these passages together, it’s clear that the “rule and authority and power and dominion” in 1:21 is referring to spiritual beings, Satan and his demons, who are always opposing God and what he is doing in this world.
Now it’s your turn
These are just three examples from Ephesians; there are more! If you take up this challenge and start reading Ephesians as a complete unit, let me know what connections you see in the text, and how your understanding of our Christian faith is deepening.
For more on this topic, here’s a great interview in both an audio and written format: A Short History of Bible Clutter