Ephesians: a love letter

Working through Ephesians at the moment when time allows. It is an immensely rich letter and it is a privilege and pleasure to spend time in it. I know it’s a question of ‘Well you would say that wouldn’t you?’ but the Bible is really rather amazing. Here’s this ancient text, getting on for 2000 years old, written to an obscure minority within a great Empire and it is just bursting with power, creativity, freshness and compelling good news.

It is also beautifully written, with layer after layer of careful thought and structured chiastic patterns, all arranged to draw the reader into the compelling argument of the letter.

There are lots of excellent commentaries on Ephesians. Some of the ones that I have found most helpful are:

John Stott. The Message of Ephesians. 1991. A classic Stottian masterpiece.

Clinton Arnold. Ephesians. 2010. ZECNT. Very good.

Frank Thielman. Ephesians. 2010. BECNT. Excellent.

Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians. NIV Application Commentary. 1996. Extremely readable and well researched. Gotta admire the name.

Harold W. Hoehner. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. 2002. Baker Academic.. Heavyweight and more technical.

Heil EphesiansBut for sheer originality and freshness, nothing has surpassed John Paul Heil, Ephesians: Empowerment to Walk in Love for the Unity of All in Christ. (SBL. 2007).

The title says it all. What Heil does so persuasively is to argue that the essential theme of Ephesians is love. But on either ‘side’ of that core theme are ‘power’ and ‘unity’.

POWER

Heil argues that the Epistle not only talks about power a lot, but as it was read orally, the reading in itself would be powerfully transformative.

God demonstrated his great power in raising Christ from the dead, a power now available to believers (1:19-20).

Heil puts it this way,

The very experience of listening to the Letter’s elaborate and ornate language of power and grace communicated by the way of the oral patterns of its chiastically arranged units not only persuades but empowers the audience to the conduct envisioned for it by Paul. (p.2)

Here’s an idea – why not try reading the letter out loud to yourself or a group and see how that goes …

TO WALK IN LOVE

‘Walk’ appears at critical junctures in the letter (2:2, 10; 4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15). Like modern English, it carries a sense of a ‘way of life’. We talk of ‘walking the walk’. A key command, which shapes all that comes after it is 5:2.

Walk in love, as also Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

‘In love’ (en agapē) is a recurrent phrase – see 1:4; 3:17; 4:2, 15, 16; 5:2. It carries the sense of a dynamic domain of love, a sort of fusion of God’s love poured out for us in Christ which empowers believers’ love for God and for one another. The verb ‘love’ (agapaō) occurs even more often. Love is beginning, middle and end in Ephesians.

Just consider the closing verses of the letter to see the overwhelming emphasis on love.

Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love. 6:23-24

UNITY

The empowering by God (and the Spirit is a major theme here), associated with ‘walking in love’, leads to a profound and deep unity in Christ.

There is the cosmic unity of all things being united in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth (1:9-10). This finds its fulfillment in the marvellous verses of 4:15-16 where believers are united together in Christ and with each other.

… speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. 4:15-16.

Power, Love, Unity – Ephesians in a nutshell.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS Update. I meant to say that the NIV, in my humble opinion, does a poor job in communicating the importance of  walk (peripateō) in the letter. For example, 5:2 is translated ‘and live a life of love’. This is a real loss. It loses the contrast between the Christian walk of 5:2 and the command in 4:17 not to walk as the Gentiles do (the NIV translates this ‘that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do’). Commands to ‘walk’ are significant in the letter but you would not know it reading the NIV. The ESV is actually much better here.

 

 

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Missional Justice (Reflection 5) Missionary

Last week a series of ‘Read Reflect Respond’ reflections on the theme of ‘missional justice’ that I’d been asked to do for TIDES, a daily devotional within the the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, were sent out to subscribers. Reproducing them here for anyone interested – hope they are of some help.

FRIDAY: The missionary and missional justice
READ – Galatians 2:9-10

James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognised the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.

REFLECT

What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?

Remembering the poor was a key strand of agreement between Paul and the other apostles. It was a defining mark of early Christianity. In an important book on Paul, New Testament scholar Bruce Longenecker has argued that that

“economic assistance of the poor was not sufficient in and of itself, nor was it exhaustive of the good news of Jesus; but neither was it supplemental or peripheral to that good news. Instead, falling within the essentials of the good news, care for the poor was thought by Paul to be a necessary hallmark of the corporate life of Jesus-followers …” (Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World. My emphasis).

Gal. 2:10 fits alongside Gal, 5:13-14 “serve one another in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

Paul ‘put his money where his mouth was’ by committing several years to organising the collection from among the Gentile churches for the poor in Jerusalem. We could even say that this task eventually cost him his life for it was in Jerusalem that he was arrested and sent to Rome.

RESPOND

Read Romans 15:23-33 about Paul’s desire to go to Rome with the contribution to the poor and his prayer request that he might be kept safe from unbelievers there. What does this tell you about his commitment to the poor within his ministry?

Read 2 Corinthians 8:1-15. Paul’s appeal for the giving to the poor is patterned on Jesus: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” How does this challenge you to ‘do justice’ with what God has blessed you with?

Missional Justice (Reflection 4) Messiah

Last week a series of ‘Read Reflect Respond’ reflections on the theme of ‘missional justice’ that I’d been asked to do for TIDES, a daily devotional within the the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, were sent out to subscribers. Reproducing them here for anyone interested – hope they are of some help.

THURSDAY: The Messiah and missional justice
READ – Luke 4:16-21

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’

REFLECT
What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?

This is one of the most dramatic texts in the Bible. Jesus’ ministry of healing and authoritative teaching was fermenting ‘messianic mania’ – could this Galilean Rabbi actually be God’s promised Messiah, come at last to liberate Israel after hundreds of years of waiting? Standing in his home synagogue, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2 and unambiguously claims to be the one they were waiting for. Like King David, the Messiah would be anointed and empowered by God for his task. What’s fascinating in this text is what form that task takes. It is the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed that he comes to liberate and restore. The king is inaugurating a kingdom of justice, open to all. Missional justice is central to the mission of the Messiah.

Yet, today it often seems that those who do pour out their lives in service to the poor are seen as admirable but exceptional. It is a fact that that within most churches in the West direct engagement with the poor and marginalised is itself a marginal activity. Why is this? Is it because we tend to individualise the gospel in terms of personal salvation and see missional justice as an ‘add on’ to the ‘core business’ of the Christian life?

RESPOND

The gospel (good news) in Luke 4 revolves around two things: (1) the identity of Jesus as God’s Spirit-anointed Messiah; (2) who will ‘proclaim good news to the poor.’

What God has joined together, let us not separate. We need to proclaim and demonstrate a holistic gospel, one which tells the good news of the Messiah and pursues justice in his name.

Missional Justice (Reflection 3) Means

Last week a series of ‘Read Reflect Respond’ reflections on the theme of ‘missional justice’ that I’d been asked to do for TIDES, a daily devotional within the the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, were sent out to subscribers. Reproducing them here for anyone interested – hope they are of some help.

WEDNESDAY: The means of missional justice – generous sharing

READ – Isaiah 58:6-7
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood

REFLECT

What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?

This hard-hitting text is emphasising, in Old Testament imagery, that ‘faith without works is dead’. A religious practice like fasting is a waste of time if not accompanied by a life of justice. Doing justice in the Bible is treating people fairly; injustice is treating people unfairly, either exploiting them in some way or neglecting to help those powerless to help themselves. Here in Isaiah, injustice takes two forms: that which oppresses and imprisons people (probably something like unpayable debt that enslaves the debtor); or failing to meet basic physical needs of food, shelter and clothing. The comment about ‘your own flesh and blood’ refers to how, within a land gifted by God, Israel was to have ‘no poor among you’ (Deut 15:4). This radical commitment to each other within the people of God is reiterated again and again in the Old Testament (e.g. Micah 6:8 ‘And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’) and the New Testament (e.g. Matt 6:1-2; Acts 4:32-35; Gal 2:10; James 1:27 ff).

This means that a Christian’s identity is not to be that of capitalism’s self-made individual consumer who has no responsibility to anyone but himself, but that of a brother and a sister with practical obligations to those less well-off than ourselves since all we own is a gift from God.

RESPOND

How is God calling you to loose the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free?  Can you think of specific people and situations where you can make a difference through generous giving of your time and money?

Have you heard a sermon in the last 5 years about how the beliefs and values of capitalism collide head-on with a biblical vision of justice? If not, why might this be?

How can the church be an alternative community of justice in a capitalist culture that idolises power, money and success?

For further study see Tim Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (Hodder & Stoughton, 2010). Excellent.

Missional Justice (Reflection 2) Model

Last week a series of ‘Read Reflect Respond’ reflections on the theme of ‘missional justice’ that I’d been asked to do for TIDES, a daily devotional within the the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, were sent out to subscribers. Reproducing them here for anyone interested – hope they are of some help.

TUESDAY: The model for missional justice – God

READ – DEUTERONOMY 10:17-19
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

REFLECT

What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?

We return today to Deuteronomy 10 and zone in on verse 17-19 in a bit more detail. They are truly revolutionary. The ‘way of the (ancient) world’ was power and violence – and it is not much different today. The gods fought amongst themselves. Human rulers used the gods to legitimise their own authority. Those in power prospered at the expense of the powerless. From this perspective, these verses are like a shaft of pure light penetrating a pitch-black room. The God of Israel shows no partiality. It is his very nature to love all humans equally and this means that he even defends the fatherless, widow and alien – categories of the most vulnerable people in the ancient world. There is no other god like this! As John would much later put it, God is love.

Seeking to ‘do good’ to others can be done out of a mixture of motives. They can include guilt – making us feel better about ourselves by helping others less fortunate. Or it can be unconsciously patronizing – a handout to the ‘deserving poor’. Or it can even be a form of ‘empire building’ – gaining reputation and funding for ‘our’ ministries. But authentic missional justice begins not with us but with the love of God himself.

RESPOND

Here in Deuteronomy caring for the powerless is modelled on God himself who cannot be bought. Such impartiality subverts the power structures of the world.

How can the church challenge the power structures of our world through generous ‘no strings attached’ love of the most vulnerable people in our society?

Read James 2:1-12 for a New Testament perspective on God’s impartiality.

Missional Justice ( Reflection 1) Motive

Last week a series of ‘Read Reflect Respond’ reflections on the theme of ‘missional justice’ that I’d been asked to do for TIDES, a daily devotional within the the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, were sent out to subscribers. Reproducing them here for anyone interested – hope they are of some help.

MONDAY: The motive for missional justice – love

READ – DEUTERONOMY 10:12-19
12 And now, Israel, what does the  Lord your God ask of you but to fear the  Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? 14 To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations – as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

REFLECT

What is the passage saying and what does this mean for us?

Fear’, ‘walk’, ‘love’, ‘serve’ and ‘observe’: five commands are given to Israel as she is about to enter the promised land. The command to love is reiterated numerous times in Deuteronomy (6:5; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 19:9; 30:6, 16). The other four commands can be seen as examples of what love for God means in practice. Love means fearing God in gratitude and thankfulness. Love means to walk in the ways of the one true God. Love means serving God wholeheartedly and therefore obeying his commands. For Israel to live this way will be a source of great blessing for her own good (13).

But note how verses 17-19 then unpack a practical example of love in action. Since God ‘loves the foreigner residing among you’ (18), Israel is to do the same (19). Authentic love for God cannot be kept to the self – it must overflow to others in need because this is the indiscriminate way that God has loved Israel (15).

RESPOND

The motive for missional justice flows from our experience of the love of God that simply can’t be kept to ourselves. How is that love ‘overflowing’ to those in need in your life; in your church’s life?

The global refugee crisis means that there are refugees living in our neighbourhoods. How can disciples who claim to love God show practical care to such foreigners in our midst?

 

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (3): What does the Bible say?

Credit: RTE

Continuing a series of posts on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

So what does the Bible say? At one level, the answer to this question is simple – nothing. No text addresses the issue directly.

In a sense this is not that surprising – here’s why. In Scripture, children are seen as a wonderful blessing from God. Not only is the child to be loved, but children are a source of security and a guarantee of future lineage. In the OT in particular, childlessness is a terrible affliction, so having children is a source of great joy

Children are a heritage from the  Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.

Psalm 127:3-5

In this sense, the Bible portrays a world, as Hays puts it, “in which abortion would be not so much immoral as unthinkable or unintelligible.” (449)

Various texts are sometimes marshalled to provide biblical support for opposition to abortion. But none of them comment specifically to the issue, and the use of some texts is far-fetched.

To cite Exodus 20:13 “You shall not murder” as an anti-abortion text is to beg the question. Yes, it can be claimed that abortion is murder in the sense that it is intentional killing of a human person. But such a view depends on how human personhood is defined. And Exodus 20:13 says nothing to that question.

The text probably most commonly cited is Psalm 139:13-16

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

Now, this text is relevant in relation to modern debate about abortion, but like any text it needs to be read in context. A Psalm of David, its focus is not a general statement about the status of the unborn, but a song in praise of God’s loving omniscience and foreknowledge, specifically his providential hand of blessing upon David in the face of potentially deadly opposition. Such a lyrical poem is at best only tangentially related to the issue of abortion.

Similar comments can be made about Luke 1:44 (Elizabeth’s child leaping in her womb). The text is Christological – focused on the unique identity of Mary’s son Jesus. As Hays comments, “To extrapolate from this text … a general doctrine of the full personhood of the unborn is ridiculous and tendentious exegesis.” The issue of abortion is simply not in view.

And also Matthew 19:14 “‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Again, to try to use this text about children as one which somehow speaks against abortion can only, as Hays puts it, “be judged as an embarrassing instance of decontextualized prooftexting.”

We should pause here for a moment to acknowledge the fact of the paucity of Bible texts that address, even indirectly, the issue of modern abortion. Understandably, some Christians will either not want to acknowledge this fact or will try to make some texts say far more than they actually do say about abortion. Neither move is helpful.

Better upfront to recognise that, when it comes to modern abortion practice, the lack of direct biblical teaching means that we will need to look at broader biblical principles in order to develop a considered theological response to a contemporary issue.

This is not at all unusual. While there are many contemporary issues that are addressed directly in Scripture (think of how much the Bible has to say about money for example), obviously there are many which are not (think artificial intelligence for example). We do not live in the biblical world, but Christians affirm that the ancient text, inspired by the Spirit, continues to speak powerfully and relevantly into our world. Bridging the gap between the two worlds is what hermeneutics (the methodology of interpreting the text) is all about.

More on that in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.