One of the Bible studies at our church has been studying the letter to the Ephesians for the past several months. It's given me an excuse to study the letter in more detail and I was struck by several things I hadn't noticed before, two of which I'll share below. The first has to do with what Paul says at the beginning of the letter in chapter one, verses three through fourteen: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will -- to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment -- to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession -- to the praise of his glory." (NIV)
This passage is often used to support the Reformed concept of predestination, the notion that salvation is all of God and all of grace since God chose each of us individually before the foundation of the world to be the objects of his grace. What part did we play in our salvation? Zero. Even our faith is a gift from God. Is that really what the passage is saying? What struck me as I was studying this passage is the way it connects up with chapters two and three and many other passages of Paul in other letters. Paul focuses in these three chapters on what he took to be the most amazing part of the gospel: God's plan to include the Gentiles as part of his chosen people. Many passages in Paul are misunderstood because readers don't realize that Paul is writing in light of the Gentile mission. With this in mind, reread chapters one through three of Ephesians. I think you'll find that verses three through fourteen don't have anything to do with our being individually chosen to become Christians before we were even born. Rather, it has to do with Jews and Gentiles together being chosen by God to be part of his New Covenant. A traditional reading of the Hebrew Bible didn't predict that this would happen. Paul calls this "the mystery of his will" (v. 9) but notes in the same verse and later in 3:3 that this mystery is no longer a mystery but has been made known to him and to others. The "mystery" includes more than one thing because it's God's whole plan "to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ." (v. 10) The question I leave with you is how to teach and preach on passages like this where the ideas Paul presents are all connected to his teaching that Gentiles are now included as part of God's chosen people? By the way, just as God had chosen the Jews as his covenant people, the prophets made it plain that not all of the Jews were truly accepted by God as his holy people. In the same way, God may have chosen to include the Gentiles as part of his covenant people, but that doesn't mean that all Gentiles are now accepted by God as part of his holy people.
The second thing I noticed in Ephesians are the household instructions in chapters five and six. The instructions Paul gives to wives, children, and slaves are typical for the time. Most of those outside of the church in Ephesus would have agreed with Paul's instructions. Last night my wife and I had dinner at our house with a prof at the University of Hawaii who attends our church. We started out talking about Shakespeare and somehow arrived at slavery in the Bible. He stated that he had trouble with this passage because Paul seemed to be accepting the status quo in Ephesus. There are several responses to this, including the fact that most slavery in cities like Ephesus would have been quite different from the kind of chattel slavery we're more familiar with in the American South. But I also see something else going on in this passage. I may be making too much of this, but it's striking, I think, to consider that while he's talking to three parties in the household (wives, children, and slaves) he's speaking to their counterpart who's the same person (husbands, fathers, and masters). What's also striking is that what he says to men is not what the local culture in Ephesus would have condoned. So Paul is supporting the status quo from one perspective (though I think he's doing it so the church can have a greater impact by living up to the highest ideals of the local community), but he's also challenging it from another perspective by challenging men to live differently with their households.