Ephesians: The Most Important Biblical Book (Apart from the Gospels) for Us Today
Every era faces issues and challenges that bring certain biblical themes and books into stark relief. The early church had to respond the challenge of death as the last great enemy of humanity. Thus they developed liturgies and theologies responding to this challenge. The “Christus Victor” theology of atonement is a natural development of this concern.
At the time of the Reformation the rediscovery of grace by Luther galvanized a movement away from the various corruptions of the Late Medieval Catholic Church which highlighted guilt and shame and the church’s indispensable role in mediating absolution. The discovery of the free grace of God mediated to humanity not by the church and its priests but rather by the sole mediator between humanity and God, Jesus Christ, resulting in a theology centered in the slogan “justification by faith” shook Europe in ways no one could have foretold (both for good and ill) and aided the launch of the modern era in the West. The books of Galatians and Romans became the centerpieces of the biblical canon because these are the books in which justification figures large.
The modern age has come and gone (or morphed into a different form or phase of modernity) and while death and guilt before God remain issues to be addressed, our age is shaped by a different dynamic. If Luther wanted to know where he could find a gracious God, we are consumed by the search for a gracious neighbor.
Ephesians, with its astonishing vision of the new humanity created through Christ’s death on the cross with its boundary-breaking, friend-making out of enemies character, has come to the fore as the biblical text that articulates and equips the church to minister to the needs of this age. This alone makes it incumbent on us to become intimate friends with Ephesians.
It was not just or even primarily the need of the day that generated Ephesians coming into its own at this moment. The New Perspective on Paul stemming from E. P. Sanders’ ground-breaking work in the last quarter of the 20th century directed our attention to the non-negotiable centrality of the inclusion of the Gentiles with the Jews in God’s new people in Christ.
This social dimension of the gospel necessitated a rethink of the shape of the entire biblical narrative. N. T. Wright has been a major player in this rethink. And Ephesians has been seen as the book that gives us “the” overview of this “eternal purpose” (Eph.3:11) of God to churches to whom Paul or one of his disciples is introducing the apostle, his work, and his vision. This statement of Paul’s vision is not addressed to the problems these churches face. Even Romans is designed to bridge the differences between Jews and Gentiles in the church at Rome. Thus Ephesians serves as an admirable general statement of Paul’s missional theology. This parity or even, in certain respects, superiority of Ephesians to Romans on these New Perspective grounds have vaulted the letter into the limelight.
Ephesians is missionary theology. That is, it is not abstract or “doctrinal” theology. Rather it is rooted in the daily, on-the-ground struggle of communities to become what I think the Bible as a whole describes it as: a subversive counter-cultural movement to participate in and spear-head God’s movement to reclaim and restore his wayward creation to its intended goal. Ephesians is the book in the New Testament that gives the big picture of God’s vision for creation itself and the process a people needs to go through to become fit for this divine incursion into a not-yet-fully-redeemed world.
Ephesians is rhetorically designed to lead to the concluding section, the well-known image of the “armor of God” (6:10-20). With this goal in place, Paul (or whoever you think wrote Ephesians) structured his letter around three posture metaphors – sit (1:3-3:21), walk (4:1-6:9), and stand (6:10-20). These images point to the basic elements of becoming God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement.
We “sit” by receiving the full measure of God’s for his people and his creation. Ch.1 details the “mystery” of God’s gracious plan in which we are called to participate. Ch.2 the “memory” of God’s great victories in Christ over all his enemies, the divine “skins on the wall” that give us confidence to invest all we have and are in this venture. Timothy Gombis has detailed how the description here fits the “divine warfare” pattern found in the Old Testament. Ch.3 provides the model or mentor, Paul himself, who shows us how to fruitfully invest with God in this venture. All these are gifts given to us which must be internalized by us to have their full effect which Paul declares to be the church’s declaring the multi-faceted wisdom of God to the rebellious “principalities and powers” that have distorted creation in inhuman ways. These three “M’s” are the first of five such “M’s” which comprise the “nuts and bolts” of this formation process.
We “walk” by participating in the life of the community of faith. Our “membership” in this body of Christ gives us the skills (gifts) and practices by which we participate in God’s work in the world. This is our “boot camp” and ongoing training in the maneuvers and tactics of our subversive counter-revolution.
We “stand” and prosecute our warfare against these powers. As noted earlier, this is the goal toward which the letter leans. The “armor of God” is God’s own armor (Isa.54) not simply a description of the Roman soldier of the day. God’s battle is fought with God’s armor (perhaps a way of stressing it is God himself who fights it through us). It is a non-violent struggle, prosecuted with what Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador called the “violence of love.” This battle-readiness is the “mode” or “manner” of our existence in this world and, as already stated, the “point” of Ephesians!
We “sit,” “walk,” and “stand” by being immersed in the “mystery” of God’s gracious “big picture” plan, the “memory” of God’s victories, the model of what God intends for us, “membership” in the community of faith, and the “mode” of engaging the world entailed by participating in God’s subversive counter-revolutionary work in the world. This, I believe, is the message of Ephesians for its first century readers and for its twenty-first century readers. And why it is the most important book in the Bible (apart from the Gospels) for us today!