Ephesians - The Church: the Fullness of Christ
In reading the Epistle to the Ephesians, we get the sense that St. Paul is striving to tell us something of extreme importance. He endeavors to reveal to us a mystery, a majestic idea that was hidden from humanity for many ages but has finally been graciously manifested to us.1 It was a truth that was sown in his bosom on the way to Damascus,2 and which grew—by time, contemplation, and suffering—into a spiritual discovery of immeasurable preciousness, a holy and joyful idea more expansive than the firmament above. The thoughts in this epistle can barely be fit into human words; they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, indeed, but there is the feeling that the Apostle wishes he could say more. There is an "energetic tension" in the wording; the expressions rise and fall, move forward and back, repeat, emphasize, develop, and rush along like a strong, foaming current; and all the while the Paraclete carries us up with him to dizzying heights of divinity.
There have been various suggestions as to a single theme, the best being expressed by H.G. Bishop Youssef, "The Church: The Fullness of Christ in God's Plan". This is like a main body of fresh water, from which smaller rivulets of sub-themes branch out and give refreshment to thousands of seekers with individual needs. The thoughts spoken by St. Paul in this epistle almost refuse to be subjected to human categories. It is in no way a formal treatise or discourse but rather a spontaneous, exultant, eucharistic hymn about the blessings of Christ's Church. In fact, the reader will not penetrate even a tenth of the meanings contained in the epistle if he is not willing to labor night and day in prayer, reading, and rereading, as assiduously as a researcher in search of a new discovery. We do not say these things lightly: the reader must approach this divine book very seriously and devoutly if he is to hear what God has to say to him. So in beginning to explore the mysteries announced in the epistle to the Ephesians, the reader must adopt the humble posture described by St. Paul in the 14th verse of the third chapter: "I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."
It might be well to bear in mind that Ephesians was written by one who had no academic credentials to his name, no theological resources at his service, and no scholars to consult—but rather a burdened mind, a weary body, an anxious heart, and a Roman chain which scarcely permitted the strained signature of the good Apostle at the close of each epistle.3 Nor did the readers to whom the epistle was addressed have any access to the abundance of commentaries and helps we have today. There one commentator and expounder was the Helper, the Spirit of Truth, who would abide with them forever.4 And after we have exhausted all our academic helps, we will also find that our one dependable and trustworthy guide through this epistle is the Paraclete. The reader, then, ought to read this epistle "hand-in-hand" with the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle takes the believer on a journey from the very beginning of time—when God pre-ordained us to be holy in Him (1:4)—to the very end of time, when God would "gather up" all things in heaven and earth in Christ (1:9), according to the good pleasure of His will (1:5). There are a number of leading thoughts introduced by key-phrases that are repeated throughout the book—like spiritual blessings in "the heavenlies";5 "the praise of His glory";6 the "riches" of His love, grace, mercy, and glory;7 and so forth. But over the many sub-themes dispersed throughout the epistle, we can discern one over-arching idea, as before mentioned, which seems to link them all together in the Apostle's mind: the ideal splendor and perfectness of the Church of Christ. So we may call Ephesians an impassioned exposition of the idea of the Church as the fullness of Christ,8 the heavenly building of which we are the building blocks,9 the family of God,10 and the mystical body of Christ.11
The epistle falls naturally into two main divisions, doctrinal (chs 1—3) and practical (chs 4—6). These are the double wings which carry St. Paul through his rapturous flight: the Church's ideal and its realization; pure theology and applied theology; thought and practice; the sublime truths raining down from heaven about the Church's glorious unity with Christ, and the good works on earth which spring up and grow from the watered soil. Although it is his common style to first lay down the doctrines of the faith and then to formulate a code of ethics based on those doctrines, the two "elements" are not so sharply distinguished as to not intermingle and coalesce in the general design.
In the first chapter, after his greeting, St. Paul starts by praising God who has given us every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies (v 3), specifically that He predestined us to be adopted sons (v 4—6) through the redemption of blood (v 7, 8), and to receive a mystery planned by God before ages, to "gather up" all things in heaven and in earth—in Christ (vv 9, 10). He advances to the glories of our spiritual inheritance in Christ, sealed and guaranteed by the Holy Spirit (vv 11—14); and the chapter concludes with a prayer (vv 15—23) that is truly beyond all description. We may simply say that it is an expression of the Apostle's desire that the believers would come to the grand realization of their calling in Christ; of the exceedingly great power available to them in Christ; and of Christ's infinitely exalted position as Head over all things, especially the Church, "which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all."
With all the rich and generous spiritual blessings of Chapter 1 in mind, St. Paul forms a contrast in Chapter 2 by reminding the Gentile believers of their former corrupt lives, and how Christ "made them alive" (vv 1—10), seated them together in the heavenlies, showed the "exceeding riches of His grace and kindness", even to being God's "workmanship". He also reminds them that they were once without Christ and aliens to God's promises but have now been brought near by Christ's blood. Christ—whose name appears more frequently in the epistle than any other book of the Holy Bible—demolished the "wall" that separated Jews and Gentiles; and He reconciled both peoples in His body—the Church—who now have access to the Father (vv 11—17). All these are very startling teachings considering they are uttered by a man who was once a Hebrew of Hebrews,12 a fanatical Pharisee, and a despiser of everything called "Gentile". He ends the chapter with another allusion to the Church (vv 18—22), which he here describes as a physical building, a holy temple, a dwelling place for God in the Spirit, in which the Gentiles are fellow building blocks with the Jews, with the apostles and prophets, "Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone."
In Chapter 3 he again takes up the thread of the Gentile's calling and spiritual heritage, but expands on his personal appointment as the announcer of the "mystery" (v 3). He admits himself to be "less than the least" of the saints; nevertheless, he was given the unique role of preaching among the Gentiles the "unsearchable riches of Christ"—a profound phrase—and their fellowship in the mystery. This mystery, this manifold wisdom of God, this eternal purpose accomplished in Christ Jesus, hidden in God before time, is now announced to all principalities and powers by the church (v 10). From there he breaks out again into an impassioned prayer on behalf of the Church (vv 14—21), whom he now calls "the whole family in heaven and earth", that Christ might dwell in them, and that they might come one day to comprehend the immeasurable width and length and depth and height of that inconceivable love which is Christ's.
The fourth chapter begins with a passage which has been made very familiar to many of us through the First Hour of the Coptic Agpeya. St. Paul gives the Ephesians a substantial "therefore" in verse 1, indicating that, in light of all the blessings and graces and calling he discussed in the first three chapters, they ought to "walk worthy" and in unity as one church (vv 1—6). The unity does not imply uniformity, however, and the Apostle spends some time enumerating the different ministries allotted to the believers according to their individual gifts; and the whole church—which he now illustrates as a living, breathing body—is "joined and knit" into a whole by the combined service of each member (vv 7—16). The remainder of the chapter (vv 17—32) is a beautiful exposition of how the regenerated believers are to put off the "old man", with his corrupt works of darkness, and put on the "new man", whose works are inaugurated by the renewing of the mind.
The fifth chapter begins with several very practical and wholesome instructions in Christian living: that they are to imitate God; to walk in love; to avoid the foolish and filthy practices of the unregenerate; and to have no fellowship with them. He then introduces the subtheme of light with an ancient Christian hymn (v 14), and exhorts them to walk circumspectly, redeeming the time. He then writes what is possibly the most memorable passage on marriage in the Holy Bible (vv 22—33). The Church is again brought to the center of our attention, in that the husband-wife relation is an icon of Christ and the Church. As Christ sacrificed His life for Her, so ought the husband for his wife; and as the Church lovingly submits to Him, so ought the wife to her husband. To St. Paul's mind, it is all a profound mystery (v 32).
Chapter 6 continues the subtheme of submission of the children to their parents (vv 1—4) and of slaves to their masters (vv 5—9). The final section of the epistle (vv 10—24) includes one of the most robust and emboldening encouragements to spiritual struggle ever inscribed by human pen. It is the great analogy of the "armor of God", a concept that has endeared itself to many Christian hearts since the first century. The Apostle urges the believers to be strong in the Lord's might (v 10), because they wrestle against unseen forces of evil in the world (v 12); and then follows a full description of the Christian's iron panoply for war. The valiant Apostle concludes his epistle with an appeal to the believers that they pray on his behalf, an ambassador in chains, that his mouth might be opened to further proclaim the "mystery of the gospel" (v 19). That prayer was answered; for the ambassador's voice was not silenced, but has sounded forth the glad tidings of the mystery of salvation down the corridor of time until the present hour.