About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”
When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.
– Acts 19:23-29 English Standard Version (ESV)
Reading through Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary by Harold W Hoehner had a massive influence on the way I was able to understand the grand narrative of one of Paul’s (a word on authorship below) least accessible letters. As opposed to the straightforward arguments and sharp eyed focus of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, or the easily digestible and very relatable nature of Philippians call to humility and perseverance, Ephesians arrives soaked in language that evokes the magic, mysticism and grand images of the spirit world that immersed Ephesus through its grand temples and gods. It speaks of an unfolding “mystery” which is wrapped up in this grand narrative of Light and Dark and the Powers that both hold this world captive. The point of this mystery is to “reveal”, with the mystery constantly at work in its revealing, even, as Ephesians declares, in revealing the mystery to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (The Powers).” (3:10)
Add to this the difficult call at the end of the book for “wives” to submit to their husbands and slaves to submit to their masters, followed directly by a call to put on the “spiritual armor” in preparation for what is a “spiritual” battle, and you have language that feels as foreign to readers in the West as it would to one not fluent in Greek trying to read it in the Greek language.
And yet, it’s strangeness for me became part of its appeal. This call to consider a world that felt foreign to me opened up my eyes to a dynamic of the Christian faith that had admittedly been lost in my own push towards rationalism and intellectual approaches as a Western raised individual. To see the Christian faith as an unfolding mystery, and to encounter that mystery within the Grand Narrative of the Powers in the idea of “adoption” (one of Paul’s most ignored theological identities) not only helped me to make better sense of Paul’s more practical writings, but of the whole of the New Testament world and writings.
A Word on Authorship
Which leads me to the question of authorship. Of all the possible Pauline writings, the letter to the Ephesians is the most disputed, largely thanks to its inaccessible nature. If one was to follow Paul’s writings, which represent the earliest writings in the New Testament, through his development (beginning with the letter to the Thessalonians, moving through the straight-forward and ground level nature of Galatians to the crown jewel of Romans) one would be hard pressed to know exactly where to fit Ephesians into the mix.
And yet, this need not leave us leary about fitting Ephesians into the New Testament narrative. Be it John, Peter or Paul, the world of these letters within the movement and growth of the early Church are interconnected, interwoven and are found largely commenting on each other within these movements from here to there and back again throughout the Roman Empire and the area of Asia Minor. To find association here with the Pauline teachings is far less complicated than narrowing down the authorship, and one is able to see many of the markers in Ephesians expressed in John, Peter and Paul.
With that in mind, I am choosing to reference Ephesians according to “author” rather than Paul, keeping in the spirit of scholarship that places this book in a variety of ways either closer to the Pauline movement or a bit further into the grander story that envelops the New Testament world.
Set Apart for the Mystery, Our Adoption into Christ
Ephesians shares an equal concern with the letters of Paul for the idea of being set “apart before the creation of the world.” (1:4) Here, we are being “set apart” for adoption, which the author describes as “His Will”, that will being the “great mystery” that is being revealed through the act of Christ’s redemption in the effort to “unite all things” (1:10). This tells us that division in the “fellowship”, a shared interest of much of the New Testament writings, is of utmost concern.
The idea of “His will” is what then establishes the concept of our “inheritance” in Ephesians, suggesting that through adoption this “hope” (the mystery of our identity in Christ who is uniting all things) becomes ours (the idea of belief) in the revealing of this mystery. This becomes important for understanding the flow of God’s saving work as expressed by the author. Salvation is, in this sense, God’s uniting of all things in Christ, a unity that becomes revealed in our given identity as adopted sons and daughters, a truth that precedes our knowledge of it and a truth that dismantles the division that Christ unifies. This is the nature of the mystery being revealed.
The Grand Narrative of this Mystery Revealed
To give this a more decisive and practical context, the author turns the attention to the story of the letter’s audience (recipients), saying that when “they heard” this hope, the hope became theirs through belief. This is what the author goes on to pray for in thanksgiving so fervently in the ensuing verses (1:15-23). It’s a beautiful prayer that evokes the wonder of this mystery being made visible in their midst.
This is where author moves us then from the particular of their context into the larger narrative of the Powers that holds this mystery both in play and in conflict- the Powers of Sin and Death and the Power of Christ that defeated Sin and Death (2:1-10). The mystery of our identity is intimately connected to the spiritual forces that are at war in the “heavenly realm”, with our witness revealing the mystery to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (3:10), thus giving Power to us (3:16) to reveal the mystery to the world. This is why our identity as “adopted” sons and daughters is being revealed, so that the grace that liberates us from the Powers of Sin Death (which divides us) can display God’s workmanship to do good work in the world (2:10) (unifying work). The mystery, Paul says, is a God “for the world” 3:6, and adoption is the great truth that brings the world together into a shared identity regardless of background.
Recalling the great argument of Galatians, we hear the author urge readers to “remember” when they were called “uncircumcised”. This is the very thing that the Power of Christ defeats, is this division of the Law which leads to hostility and a Christ/Body divided against itself. As in Galatians, the Abrahamic Covenant comes to the forefront here, emphasizing the making of one new identity (Christ) out of two (Hagar and Sarah), thus healing the divide. And this is done through the proclamation that Christ is the cornerstone (living stone in 1st Peter), evoking the house metaphor that 1 Peter made alive for us (2:19-21) as a house undivided. This is the spiritual language at work. We are adopted as sons and daughters of God, and what is being revealed to us is our lives as a spiritual house, a house made with living stones and with Christ (and His work) as its foundation. And yet the powerful notion that we find in Ephesians is that this happens within a larger and collective context, one in which the Powers are very real and very alive, and one which which pulls us into the world at large.
The Reality of the Powers as Our Confidence
The author uses all of this as the foundation upon which the letter moves to speak to the revealing of this great mystery (our adoption). The truth in Christ is that God has defeated the Powers of Sin and Death. In a world where Darkness exists, the Light shines. It is because this truth precedes the revealing of the mystery (our identity as adopted sons and daughters of God) that we should walk in a manner worthy (of the calling to adoption), this manner being humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing one another in love. All of which happens for the sake of unity in the Spirit (4:1-14). This is the sweeping movement of Christ in his descent (below for the sake of those who have already died) and ascent (above for the sake of the whole of the world in time), demonstrating the unifying work the author has declared the spiritual war to be both for and about. (4:9-10)
The Powers of Sin and Death have been defeated and the mystery of who we are In Christ revealed “So that we may no longer be children tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every whim of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (4:14), but rather freed to speak the “truth in love”. 4:17 then moves to speak to the particular-ness of what the gentiles are being pulled out of, contrasting the life in Ephesus as Gentiles with the new reality of their adoption, urging them to put away “that manner of life” so that opportunity is not given to the devil to “divide” them against “one another” (4:28). Instead, the author urges, walk in love (Chapter 5), being imitators of God in his love (5:1). There is something important and necessary that happens here, underscoring the idea that the defeating of the Powers of Sin and Death precedes us. In their status as adopted sons being “revealed” to them, what also gets revealed is the Darkness (the Powers) that once held them in bondage. There is a deep interconnectedness in the Book of Ephesian’s understanding of spiritual war and the practical outflow of its salvation (Christ defeating the Powers) in our midst and in our stories. This is the grand narrative to which we all already belong, Jew and Gentile.
Be Imitators of God: Discovering our Identity as Adopted Sons and Daughters
Here we arrive at a puzzling inclusion to the Ephesians narrative. Bringing in the Hellenistic household code, the author uses this as a way of applying this idea of our adopted identity into the particulars of its structure (5:22). Adoption is the framework for this series of “servant” examples, from child, to parent, to husband/wife, to slaves, emphasizing that in the defeating of the Darkness there is no partiality in the Gospel’s reach (6:9). The unity that Christ is working towards is found in imitating God’s work which we find on the Cross, which is where we are to frame the idea of submission which the author pulls out of the household code in a reimagining of what was a power structure.
Three important distinctions have helped me make some sense of what the author is doing in this section. First, what the author calls us towards (unity) is generalized (for all) using a particular framework (the household code). It is reaching into the language of that world to tell us something about our identity as adopted children of God. Secondly, there is a metaphorical aspect that we find in its use of the household structure (marriage, slave and master, parent and child) that the author is applying directly to the building of the collective (spiritual houses), which is the Church. Lastly, this must be understood in the nature of God’s work on the Cross. The Cross is the particular expression of the larger narrative in which we find the great spiritual war working to divide and to heal both Christ and Body.
It is through these three things that we can understand the word “submission”. Submission is what sets Christ under the Powers of Sin and Death that held us bondage. It is a lowering of one self for the sake of raising up another (symbolically captured in Ephesians in the descent and ascension). It is sweeping and indiscriminate in nature, interested in unity rather than distinction. Most important to Ephesians though, our unity is our shared identity. Adopted Sons and Daughters, this is what sets us in relationship to God for the sake of one another (the world). Submission gives up Power so that the Power that holds us bondage, holds us divided, can be declared defeated. The author pulls from the context of their audience (those in Ephesus and living within the household code) not to elevate the code as conduct, but to give us a framework through which to understand the nature of the mystery revealed.
This call to submission, to unity, is then set directly back into the larger narrative of the angels and the Powers and the larger spiritual reality, applying the worthy manner of which we are to walk because of our adoption as children of God (Chapter 4) to a picture of spiritual armor (the Armor of God 6:11). In ending the book with this, the author urges its readers to remember that the war that wages is a spiritual one. In the magic and spirits and mysticism of Ephesus, God is revealing the grand narrative of the Christian story, one in which we understand both what is at stake and what has already been won. This is the “mystery of the Gospel” that the author proclaims to us for the sake of the spiritual forces. This is the grand claim that we declare back to the Powers of Sin by way of this armor- that we are a child of God. This action is both proactive (laying claim to) and declarative (the war has already been won). It is resistant (resisting the division and disunity of the evil one) and accomplishing (freeing us to live into our reality as adopted sons and daughters). It is participatory (we reveal the mystery to the Powers) and receiving (the mystery of who we already are).
I think the dual nature of this armor is important and necessary for understanding the book of Ephesians in all its lofty language and confusion, because otherwise we are left, as the Ephesians were, living in bondage to the Powers. We will tend to interpret the word “belief” in transactional ways, leading us to see the battle as one we must win in order to find our “identity”. The hopeful nature of this spiritual reality, this grand narrative, is that we are no longer under the Power of Darkness, the Power of Sin and Death. It is about the truth of the unveiling, the revealing of this great mystery, with “His Will” uniting all things in Christ who defeated the Powers of Sin and Death on the Cross. It is, above all else, an invitation to see, to see who we already are- adopted sons and daughters of God. Not in fear, but in boldness. And in seeing we are able to declare to the spiritual forces that they have already been defeated, and declare to the world that the light is, in fact, already shining.