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Ephesians 1:15-23 Biblical Commentary
While this book begins, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God, to the saints who are at Ephesus, and the faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1), scholars today are divided regarding both the authorship and the intended recipients. A full treatment of these issues is beyond the scope of this exegesis, but briefly:
AUTHORSHIP: The language, style, and vocabulary are markedly different from the letters that scholars regard as indisputably Pauline (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1Thessalonians, and Philemon). Also some of the theology of this letter differs from that of other Pauline letters. For instance, Romans 6:5 says, “For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will also be part of his resurrection.” That verse sees resurrection-unity with Christ as something that we will experience in the future. But Ephesians 2:6 says, “and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” That verse sees our resurrection unity with Christ as already having been realized.
INTENDED RECIPIENTS: The words “at Ephesus” (1:1) are not present in the oldest and presumably most reliable manuscripts. This letter doesn’t deal with congregational issues, as do Paul’s other letters to churches. Also verses 3:2-4 make it sound as if the Ephesians are not personally acquainted with Paul, which is inconsistent with the fact that Paul visited Ephesus on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:19-28) and spent three years there on his third missionary journey (Acts 20:31).
These considerations have caused some scholars to believe that this letter was written pseudonymously—by a follower of Paul writing in Paul’s name, perhaps after Paul’s death. Pseudonymous writings were common at that time, and the intent of a pseudonymous letter would not have been to deceive. The recipients would quite likely have been aware of the pseudonymous character of the letter.
Some scholars believe that this letter was written for circulation to a number of churches rather than just to the church at Ephesus.
If Paul was the author, he probably wrote this letter in the early 60’s of the first century. If it was written by someone else, it was probably written in the 80’s or 90’s.
For the purpose of this exegesis and for simplicity’s sake, I will refer to Paul as the author and the Ephesians as the intended recipients—while acknowledging the possibility that the author could be someone other than Paul and the intended recipients could have included a number of churches.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
The opening verses of this book (vv. 1-14) include a greeting from “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God to the saints who are at Ephesus” (v. 1), and a thumbnail sketch of Paul’s theology (vv. 3-14). That sketch opens with a joyful response to the blessings that God has provided, and ascribes blessings or praise to God for his grace (v. 3).
In verses 4-14, Paul outlines the nature of some of those blessings:
• Being chosen or elected (vv. 4-5).
• Bestowed favor (v. 6)
• Redemption and forgiveness (v. 7)
• Revealing the mystery of his will (v. 9)
• Inheritance (v. 11)
• Salvation (v. 13).
• Redemption (v. 14).
Verses 3-14 were one long sentence in the original Greek. Verses 15ff. constitute another lengthy sentence.
EPHESIANS 1:15-16a. I DON’T CEASE TO GIVE THANKS FOR YOU
15For this cause I also, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which is among you, and the love which you have toward all the saints, 16adon’t cease to give thanks for you,
“For this cause” (Greek: dia) (v. 15a). “For this cause” translates the little Greek word dia, which has several meanings, depending on its context. In this verse, it means “on account of this” or “for this reason.” As used here, it points back to the blessings that Paul outlined in verses 4-14 (see above).
“I also, having heard of the faith (Greek: pistis) in the Lord Jesus which is among you” (v. 15b). Paul made a brief visit to Ephesus on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 18:19-28). He returned there on his Third Missionary Journey (Acts 19:1), remained in Ephesus for three years (Acts 20:31), and founded the church there.
Ephesus is one of the seven churches addressed by Christ in Revelation 2-3. In most cases, Christ is quite critical of these churches, but his comments to the church at Ephesus are the least critical of the lot (Revelation 2:1-7). He commends their toil and perseverance—their intolerance for evil men—their endurance and not growing weary. However, he also rebukes them, because they have left their first love (Revelation 2:4). This probably means that they have emphasized toil, perseverance and intolerance of evil to the point where they have forgotten to love Christ and one another.
Paul is giving thanks for the faith (pistis) and love (agape) of these Ephesian Christians.
In the New Testament, the Greek word pistis means faith—the person’s response to the kerygma—the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul is giving thanks here for the belief of these Ephesian Christians “in the Lord Jesus”—for the trust that they have placed in the Lord Jesus by steering the ship of their lives by his star.
In the verses that follow, Paul outlines something of the content of the faith that he is celebrating. It is faith that:
• God will give them a spirit of wisdom and knowledge (v. 17).
• They will experience the riches of their inheritance (v. 18).
• God has raised Christ from the dead and honored him “to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places” (vv. 20-21).
• God has “put all things in subjection under (Christ’s) feet, and (has given) him to be head over all things (in the church), which is his body” (vv. 22-23).
“and the love (Greek: agape) which you have toward all the saints” (v. 15c). Of the two Greek words used in the New Testament for love (agape and philos), agape is clearly predominant, appearing five times as often as philos.
Agape love is more a “doing” than a “feeling” word. It doesn’t require that we approve of the actions of the person whom we love—or even that we enjoy their company. It does require us to act in behalf of that person—to demonstrate our love in some practical fashion.
Agape love is the first of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22)—and is the greatest of Christian virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13). When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus said: “The greatest is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. The second is like this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).
“toward all the saints” (Greek: hagioi) (v. 15c). The Greek word hagioi (saints) means “holy ones.” The idea of “holy ones” has its roots in the Old Testament. God is holy, and all things associated with God (including God’s chosen people) are holy because of their association with God (Deuteronomy 28:9; Isaiah 62:12). So in this verse, Paul uses the word hagioi to mean the followers of Christ in Ephesus.
In the context of this verse, Paul is celebrating the love of these Ephesian Christians for each other—and for other Christian brothers and sisters, wherever they might be.
“don’t cease to give thanks for you” (v. 16a). Paul is giving unceasing thanks for the faith and love of the Ephesian Christians.
EPHESIANS 1:16b-19. THAT GOD MAY GIVE YOU A SPIRIT OF WISDOM
16bmaking mention of you in my prayers, 17that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him; 18having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope of his calling, and what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, 19and what is the exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to that working of the strength of his might,
“making mention of you in my prayers” (v. 16b). What would be the contents of Paul’s prayers for these Ephesian Christians? For one thing, he would give thanks for their faith (v. 15), but he would also petition God to give them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him” (v. 17). He would pray that they might “know what is the hope of his calling”—and that they might know “the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (v. 18) and “the exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe” (v. 19).
“that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory” (v. 17a). The word “glory” is used in the Bible to speak of various wonderful things—but it is used especially to speak of God’s glory—an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans.
Christ shares God’s glory. The glory of the Lord was revealed at his birth (Luke 2:9; John 1:14). His disciples, Peter, James and John, were privileged to see Christ’s glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (9:28-36). Christ’s cross was necessary so that he might “enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26; see also Philippians 2:5-11). The Gospel of John in particular speaks of the cross as Christ’s glorification (John 12:23; 13:31-32). Jesus spoke of returning “with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).
“may give to you a spirit (Greek: pneuma) of wisdom” (v. 17b). The word pneuma (“spirit”) appears here without the definite article, and is not referring to THE Holy Spirit. Paul is praying that these Ephesian Christians will have a “spirit of wisdom.”
The Greeks prized wisdom, and sought wisdom through philosophy. However, for Paul, God is the source of all wisdom. God’s wisdom often manifests itself in ways that seem strange to us. For instance, God’s wisdom was manifested in the birth of a baby in a small town stable in an inconsequential country. God’s wisdom was manifested in the cross of Christ. Such things might appear foolish to most people, but “the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). “God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
“and revelation (Greek: apokalypsis) in the knowledge of him” (v. 17c). An apokalypsis is a revelation or a disclosing or an unveiling. It suggests not only the appearance of something new, but also the ability to interpret or to understand what is seen.
Paul is praying is that God will reveal himself to these Ephesian Christians—that God will make it possible for them to know God more intimately. This would include their coming to an understanding of God’s will for their lives.
The knowledge that comes by God’s revelation is God’s gift to us (v. 17c). Wisdom (v. 17b) is also a gift—the gift of knowing how to use that knowledge effectively.
“having the eyes (Greek: opthalmos) of your hearts (kardia) enlightened” (photizo) (v. 18a). The word opthamology (the branch of medicine dealing with the eye) comes from the Greek word opthalmos, which means eye.
Paul is using the word opthalmos (eye) metaphorically, of course. Our physical heart doesn’t have an eye attached. However, we talk about the eye being the lamp of the body and the window to the soul—by which we mean spiritual sight.
Paul also uses the word kardia (heart) metaphorically. In this context, kardia refers to the center of one’s being, both physical and spiritual—that which makes the individual person what he or she is—character, intellect, personality, etc.
The Greek word photizo (enlightened) is another word having to do with light. It means to illuminate or to give light to something. We get our words photograph (an image created by light) and photon (a particle of light) from photizo. In this context, enlightened is an excellent translation, because (1) it has the word light embedded in it and (2) we use the word enlightened to mean speak of spiritual insight.
So in this verse Paul is praying that God will open the spiritual eyes of these Ephesian Christians so that their very beings might be transformed by the spiritual insights that God alone can provide.
“that you may know (Greek: eido) what is the hope of his calling” (Greek: klesis) (v. 18a). The Greek word eido means to see, to know, or to understand.
The Greek noun klesis (calling) is related to the verb kaleo which means to call. Klesis means a call or an invitation. The New Testament uses klesis to speak of God’s inviting us to become members of the kingdom of God—to experience adoption into God’s family—to gain salvation and the hope of life eternal.
Paul’s prayer for these Ephesian Christians, then, is that they might see clearly and understand fully the hope that is inherent in God’s invitation to be part of God’s family.
“and what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance (Greek: kleronomia) in the saints” (Greek: ho hagiois) (v. 18c). The Greek words, ho hagiois, usually translated “the saints” in the New Testament, literally mean, “the holy ones.” Our understanding of holiness has its roots in the Old Testament, where the Hebrew word is qadosh—set aside for a holy purpose. To become holy, a person must separate him/herself from that which is common. To be holy is to be “called out” from the sinful world into a deep and abiding relationship with God so that the person becomes more God-like—holier—less like the sinful world-at-large.
While Christians today usually think of saints as especially holy people who have been canonized by the church, Jesus calls all who follow him to be holy—and the New Testament uses the words ho hagiois to refer to Jesus’ disciples—not just to a few exceptional disciples, but to all disciples.
Paul is praying that these Ephesian Christians will know “what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.” He wants to insure that they appreciate the stunning nature of the blessings associated with the inheritance that Christ has prepared for them. He wants them not to take this inheritance lightly, but rather to take great joy in its promise.
Torah law specified the rules governing inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17). In Israel, to qualify for a share of the inheritance, one needed to be a son. God treated Israel as his son (Exodus 4:22; 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7; Romans 9:4). However, the New Testament treats followers of Christ as God’s adopted sons and daughters. While “adopted” might suggest a second-rate status, that is not the case when God is the adoptive Father. Paul says that we “are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26)—and “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the children of God…. and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-17).
This is the third time that Paul has mentioned inheritance in this first chapter of Ephesians. First he mentioned Christ, “in whom also we were assigned an inheritance” (1:11). Then he told the Ephesian Christians that they “were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is a pledge of our inheritance” (1:13-14). Now he calls these Christians to take note of “the riches of the glory of (their) inheritance.”
As I am writing this, a recent news story tells of two lottery winners who will share a prize of $600 million. I haven’t purchased a lottery ticket, but I must confess that I am tempted when the prize is so large. I find myself day-dreaming about the good things I could do with $600 million. I can barely imagine how the winners must feel when they check and double-check and triple-check the numbers on their lottery tickets—finally acknowledging that they have won a prize that will change their lives forever. Can’t you imagine their joy! Now let me bring you back to Paul, who wants these Ephesian Christians (and us) to be even more excited about our Godly inheritance than a lottery winner would be about his/her newfound wealth.
“and what is the exceeding (Greek: hyperballo) greatness of his power (dynamis) toward us who believe, according to that working (energeia) of the strength (Greek: kratos) of his might”(ischys)“ (v. 19).
This verse is jam-packed with interesting words:
The word hyperballo (exceeding or surpassing) is composed of two Greek words: hyper (over or above) and ballo (to throw)—and is therefore an “over the top” kind of word. We get our word hyperbole (extravagant exaggeration for emphasis or effect) from hyperballo. When we use hyperbole, we don’t intend anyone to believe us literally, but instead are trying to expand their consciousness regarding the subject under discussion. When Paul talks about “the exceeding greatness of (God’s) power,” he intends for us to imagine power beyond imagining.
And then Paul uses four power words—words that, in this context are essentially synonymous:
• dynamis (power—dynamis is where we get our word dynamite).
• energeia (harnessed energy—power at work)
• kratos (the presence of significant power—manifest power)
• ischys (strength, whether physical or moral)
While I have made a modest attempt to differentiate these four words, Paul is using them to drive home in our consciousness the reality of God’s power. It is as if Paul is using four blows of a hammer to speak of God’s power to make sure that we “get” it.
The emphasis here is not just that God is powerful, but that he is powerful “toward us who believe”—that God has harnessed this great power for our benefit—to effect our salvation. Sit back for a moment and try to imagine the Godly power that went into the creation of the universe. Now stop and imagine all that power directed “toward us who believe”—making possible the salvation we so desperately needed.
EPHESIANS 1:20-23. CHRIST—FAR ABOVE ALL
20which he worked in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule, and authority, and power, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come. 22He put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things for the assembly, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
“which he worked in Christ, when he raised him from the dead” (v. 20a). In verse 19, Paul used four power-words (dynamis, energeia, kratos, and ischys—see comments above on v. 19) to describe God’s power. Now he tells us that God used this power to raise Christ from the dead (v. 20a)—to seat Christ on a heavenly throne high above everything (v. 20b-21)—and to “put all things in subjection under his feet” (v. 22).
Note that the actor in these events is God. Christ is the one acted upon. Paul doesn’t say that Jesus rose from the dead, but that God raised Christ from the dead. The resurrection was a manifestation of the power of God the Father.
“and made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places” (v. 20b). In verses 20b and 22a, Paul alludes to two Old Testament verses:
• The first (v. 20b) is Psalm 110:1, where “Yahweh says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool for your feet.” Originally, that was a royal psalm, celebrating the king of Israel, but it came to be interpreted as a messianic psalm.
• The second (v. 22a) is Psalm 8:6, which says, “You make him ruler over the works of your hands. You have put all things under his feet.” Originally, this was a celebration of humanity—God made man a ruler. However, it also came to be interpreted as a messianic psalm.
These verses celebrate the ascension of Christ to his heavenly throne (see Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9). The early church emphasized the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ as a single event with three stages. Jesus’ ascension returns him to the heavenly throne at the right hand of God from whence he came to earth (John 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8). He will remain there until he comes again in glory (Acts 1:11)—a cataclysmic event that will come suddenly and without warning (2 Peter 3:10). In heaven, Christ intercedes for us with the Father (Romans 8:34).
“far above all rule (Greek: arche), and authority (exousia), and power (dynamis), and dominion (kyriotes), and every name (onoma) that is named” (v. 21a).
• In verse 19, Paul used four power-words (dynamis, energeia, kratos, and ischys) to speak of Godly power.
• Now he uses five power-words (arche, exousia, dynamis, kyriotes, and onoma) to speak of another kind of power—power that is often hostile to God.
These powers are not inherently hostile to God. “For by (God) all things were created, …whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and for him” (Colossians 1:16).
However, power in human hands tends to turn rancid. Lord Acton observed, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We have seen that manifested time after time, especially in the political arena, but also in business, academia, and even in the church. Therefore, “our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12).
The word “name” (onoma) might seem out of place in this list of power-words, but names have power. We talk about name-dropping, by which we mean trying to impress others by mentioning the name of a powerful person. Onoma can also mean title—and titles such as king or president (or the Reverend Doctor) have the potential to confer power. Onoma can also mean character or reputation. Being known as a person of good character (having a good reputation) confers considerable power.
“not only in this age, but also in that which is to come” (v. 21b). The Jews of Paul’s day divided time into two ages (Matthew 12:32)—the present age under Satan’s rule and the age to come under God’s rule.
Paul is saying that that Christ’s place at the right hand of the Father (v. 20) gives him overarching power, not just in the age to come, but also in the present age. This is important to keep in mind lest we become discouraged, because it so often appears that godless forces are in control of our world. However, Christ’s power will also be manifest if we will open our spiritual eyes to see it—and the day will come when his power will triumph completely over the hostile powers.
“He put all things in subjection under his feet” (v. 22a). As noted above, this alludes to Psalm 8:6, which says, “You make him ruler over the works of your hands. You have put all things under his feet” (see also Psalm 110:1; 1 Corinthians 15:27; Hebrews 2:8).
Paul is saying that God has “put all things in subjection under (Christ’s) feet.” The picture is of a reigning monarch sitting on an elevated throne with his subjects at his feet.
“and gave him to be head over all things for the assembly” (Greek: ekklesia—church) (v. 22b). This is another way of describing Christ’s overarching authority. God has made him head over all things pertaining to the ekklesia—the church.
When reading this verse, we need to remember that Christ is Lord, not only of the church, but is also “above all all rule, and authority, and power, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come” (v. 21).
The Greek word ekklesia (assembly or church) is a combination of two words—ek (out) and kalein (to call)—so it means “to call out.” The Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) uses the word ekklesia to translate the Hebrew word qahal, which is used to mean the congregation of Israel—the congregation of the people of God. Both the people of Israel and the followers of Christ were called out of the world to be holy—to be God’s people.
Jesus used the word ekklesia only in Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 18:15-21.
While Luke doesn’t use the word in his Gospel, he uses it frequently in the book of Acts (5:11; 8:1, 3; 9:31; 11:22, 26; 12:1, 5; 13:1; 14:23, 27; 15:3-4, 22, 18:22; 20:17, 28). That makes sense, because the book of Acts is the history of the early church.
The book of Ephesians provides insight into the rich meaning of ekklesia:
• The church “is (Christ’s) body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:23).
• Christ’s disciples are God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (2:10). We are “are no longer strangers and foreigners, but…are fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom the whole building, fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom (we) also are built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit” (2:19-21).
• It is “through the ekklesia (church)” that “the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10).
• There are various callings (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers), but all are called to work “for the perfecting of the saints, to the work of serving, to the building up of the body of Christ” (4:12).
• Christ “is the head of the ekklesia being himself the savior of the body” (Ephesians 5:23; see also Colossians 1:18).
• The church “is subject (under, in submission to) to Christ” (Ephesians 5:24).
• Christ “loved the ekklesia, and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the ekklesia to himself gloriously, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).
• “We (the church) are members of (Christ’s) body, of his flesh and bones” (Ephesians 5:30).
Also, Paul in his first letter to Timothy, speaks of “the ekklesia of the living God,” which is “the house of God” (1 Timothy 3:15).
“which is his body” (v. 23a). Christ is the head of the church (1:22), which is Christ’s body (this verse). This is a rich metaphor, because we understand that our head controls our bodies. Our heads not only have the capacity for complex thought, but also generate signals that control our muscles and everything that we do. Because Christ is the head of the church, his body, he is in control of the life of the church.
“the fullness (Greek: pleroma) of him who fills (Greek: pleroo) all in all” (v. 23b). This is a puzzling phrase. What does it mean? I won’t burden you with all the complexities of this short phrase, but it is challenging to exegete.
Perhaps the best clue to the meaning of this verse is found in the book of Colossians, which has many parallels to the book of Ephesians. There it says that Christ “is the head of the body, the ekklesia (church)…. All the fullness (pleroma) was pleased to dwell in him; and through him to reconcile all things to himself” (Colossians 1:19-20a). Then it says, “For in him (Christ) all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily, and in him you are made full, who is the head of all principality and power” (Colossians 2:9-20).
If we accept these verses from Colossians as roughly synonymous in meaning to Ephesians 1:23b (as I do), then this verse means that the fullness of God dwells in Christ—and Christ fills us and makes us full of the presence of God.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1965)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984)
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Slater, Thomas B., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Ephesians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2012)
Thielman, Frank S., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2010)
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Copyright 2013, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan