Essay / Misc.

Ephesians and the God-sized Gospel

There is one place in scripture where the sheer greatness of the gospel is most profusely described: the blessing with which Paul opens the epistle to the Ephesians.

Paul begins by praising God for the gift of the gospel, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ,” and then he takes a deep breath and starts counting out those blessings, one after another, in a 202-word avalanche of praise without pause or punctuation from verses 3-14. Paul speaks here from the fullness of his heart as well as the keenness of his insight. The theme of “blessing” overwhelms him, and pushes him to compose a correspondingly overwhelming sentence. It runs from heaven to earth, taking sudden turns and detours as it doubles and triples back on itself, oscillating between God and man, and circling its subject to view it from every angle. For all this wildness, the blessing has also a stateliness and coherence which reflects the wisdom which it praises. No translation or paraphrase can capture it all definitively, but here is one of the possibilities:

God chose us in Christ
before the ground of the world was laid
to be holy and blameless before him;
In his love he determined us in advance
for adoption into sonship through Jesus Christ
through the good pleasure of his will
to the praise of his glorious grace

—Grace which God graced us with in the Beloved
through whose blood we have redemption,
the forgiveness of sins,
according to the riches of his grace
which he poured out on us in abundance;
In all wisdom and insight
he made us know the mystery of his will
according to his own counsel,
which he had settled beforehand in Christ:
an administration (economy) in the fullness of times
to sum up everything, things in heaven and things on earth,
under one heading: Christ!
In him we too have been given an inheritance
as we were predestined according to the purpose
of the one who works out everything
in accord with the counsel of his will
So that we would be a praise of his glory;

We who were the first to hope in Christ, who you also,
—you who have heard the word of truth,
the gospel of your salvation—
when you believed, you were sealed in Christ
with the promised Holy Spirit,
who is the down payment on what we will inherit
when God redeems his own possession
to the praise of his glory.

Every line, and nearly every word, of the great blessing could profitably be unpacked at length. However, in order to clarify the way it shows the size and shape of the gospel, we can stay out of the details and notice instead only two things about the passage as a whole: First, that it is unmanageably large and complex, and second, that it has a decidedly trinitarian contour. The blessing of the gospel, in other words, is big and God-shaped.

Leaving aside its trinitarian shape, let us attend to its size and complexity. In this translation I intentionally divided the blessing into three sections to highlight its trinitarian logic, from the electing and adopting Father, through the redeeming and revealing Son, to the promised and sealing Spirit. But if the sentence is, as some commentators have said, “a monster,” I hope I have done nothing to domesticate it. The wildness of the blessing is an important aspect of it, and the reader who does not feel some degree of vertigo from its outrageous breadth of thought is not reading it properly. It contains more ideas, pointing in more directions, than anyone could reasonably be expected to take in. On the basis of Ephesians 1:3-14, nobody can accuse Paul of having a gospel that is too small. There is an abundance here bordering on excessiveness. And Paul’s sentence has that character precisely because, as scripture breathed out by God, it faithfully corresponds to the character of the reality it points us to: a gospel of salvation that is the work of the untamable holy Trinity. Like all scripture, this passage is the word of God, and has within itself the life, activity, and incisiveness we would expect in an almighty speech-act through which God does his work. It is an effective word, and one of its effects here is to snatch its listeners out of their own lives and drop them into Christ. It immediately takes the reader to the heavenlies, to the world of the spirit, and from that vantage point invites us to join in blessing God for the blessing he blessed us with.

The reason Paul starts the letter with such a disorienting blast is that he is summoning us to praise God, and in order to praise God rightly the thing we need most is a good dose of disorientation. All of us think from our own point of view, starting from a center in ourselves and how things look to us. This is unavoidable, since everyone has to start from where they are. It is simply how finite minds work, and is not even related to the kind of “self-centeredness” which is sinful. However, when finite minds come to encounter the infinite God, we run the risk of adding God to the catalog of items we are interested in studying, or acquiring, or reaping some benefits from. Especially when the issue is the blessing of salvation, the danger is great that the finite mind will treat God and his blessings as enhancements to be added to our lives. The only way to escape this tendency is to be drawn out of ourselves into the bewilderingly large and complex gospel of God. The excessiveness of Paul’s sentence seeks to disorient our existing categories, in order to reorient us by drawing us in to the divine orientation. What we need is the miracle of being able to see our own situation from a point of view infinitely higher than our own. We need to start our thinking from a center in God, not in ourselves. If it is not too much of a pun, Paul invites us to an ecstatic gospel: the good news of standing outside (ek-stasis) of ourselves.

Paul doesn’t expect to pound his readers rhetorically into adopting the right point of view. He may have composed a stunning sentence to start his letter, but he knows that nobody has the resources for that cognitive leap to thinking from a center in God. No writer can express that point of view effectively, and no reader can learn it directly. A miracle has to happen. That is why Paul’s argumentation and description are linked with invocation throughout the letter. Immediately after the blessing he prays for a divine gift of spiritual revelation and illumination:

I pray ….that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him, the eyes of your heart being enlightened, so you may know…

And in the third chapter Paul prays for his readers to comprehend all the dimensions of this truth, and to “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.” Fully aware that he is asking for what is humanly impossible, Paul plays “knowing” and “unknowable” off of each other oxymoronically. He is not being absurd, rather he “makes a seemingly absurd combination of opposites in order to emphasize a particular point.” To underline our need for this direct revelation even more, Paul urges his readers to give glory to God, who “is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think,” or in an overly-literal translation as awkward as the original Greek, “who is super-abundantly able beyond everything we can ask or think.”

The strategy of Ephesians is to give us a birds-eye view of the gospel, which is only available from a vantage point far above all created powers. When by the grace of God that miracle of reorientation happens, we are not just ready to read Ephesians, but we are already taken in to the spiritual blessing of God in Christ. After all, the only “standing outside of ourselves” that really results in salvation is standing “in Christ,” a phrase which Paul hammers home at least once in each verse of the sentence. Because of the singular power with which Ephesians focuses on this message, the epistle has always had its special devotees throughout church history.

The greatest of all theological commentators on Ephesians is the puritan Thomas Goodwin (1600 1679), whose massive commentary on the book is at once a detailed verse by verse exposition and a masterful synthesis of all that is best in the puritan Reformed vision. In the first few verses, Goodwin spots the character of God’s blessing as being ultimately coterminous with God himself. Before expounding the great blessing of Ephesians 1:3-14 word by word, Goodwin establishes the larger picture: “Not only God doth bless with all other good things, but above all by communicating himself and his own blessedness unto them…”

The blessing of the gospel is essentially God declaring, “‘Thou shalt have all my blessedness to make thee blessed, which the Apostle fitly renders, Eph. 3, ‘being filled with all the fulness of God;’ and indeed all things else without God or besides God could never make us blessed.”

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