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Backpacking Ephesians

I just finished another small group study of Ephesians; and, as you may know, I like to encourage folks to list what they believe are the top 3 or 4 main things God wants us to learn/do from a book, and then to come up with a title that would make a good summary or would capture the essence of the book (other than “Ephesians,” of course). To “backpack” the book, in other words. I continue to try to do that for Ephesians and am not yet satisfied (check out the “Seven Wonders of the New World” document on the website). The following is certainly not perfect, but another attempt that might be worth sharing—as a way to remember or sum up what Ephesians is about. And it makes use of the letter E (as in E-phesians). Maybe we call it “The 3 Es of Ephesians.” How about this?

Be Enlightened, Be Encouraged, and Be Empowered . . . by Being the Church [and for those of you Greek-familiar peoples, another E, from Ekklesia]

Let me expand.

Be enlightened . . .

In the introductory Thanksgiving, Paul prays for his readers—that the eyes of their hearts would be opened or enlightened, and to 3 things in particular: (1) the hope of his calling, (2) the glorious riches of his inheritance among the saints, and (3) the surpassing greatness of his power upon us who believe (1:18-19). Paul’s prayer for them and the purpose of the letter go hand in hand. Thus, by tracing out the meaning of these 3 major themes, we can have our hearts and minds opened “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ . . . that surpasses knowledge.” A primary purpose of Ephesians is educational, but in a deeply spiritual sense (“just as truth is in Jesus”), and thus God is trying to tell us some things about what he is doing “in Christ” that go beyond human plans or understanding, some things we need to understand to be what he has made us “in Christ.”

Be encouraged . . .

When Paul sent letters to the churches, the purpose of a letter was related to, if not the same as, the purpose of the letter-carrier (which Paul sometimes mentions in the letter). Paul sent Tychicus with this letter so that they could know how he (Paul) was doing and so that “he might encourage your hearts” (6:21-22). At the end of the very important section about Paul’s ministry and imprisonment (3:1-13), Paul says, “So don’t be discouraged about my suffering for you . . .” Apparently, what had happened to Paul and his current situation was distressing and potentially very discouraging to the Gentile churches he planted (and he had a very special rela¬tion¬ship with the church at Ephesus: see Acts 19-20). Knowing that God is working in Paul’s life and in all of their/our lives for his purpose and plan (“according to the working of his power”) provides an anchor in troubled seas. As their “pastor,” moreover, Paul was always trying to encourage the believers, and he does so in Ephesians with powerful pictures of what it means to be seated with Christ in the heavenly/spiritual real, as part of the one, new humanity and purpose of God “in Christ.”

And be empowered . . .

The remedy for discouragement is courage (thus to be “encouraged”) and courage comes from power. Being empowered is thus the most dominant, single theme of Ephesians. Our empowerment is based on the lordship of Christ; because he is Lord “over all things for the church” (1:22-23), being a part of the church means the Lord is in our corner. But it goes way beyond that. God is present in the world through the church. This may be the single most important point of Ephesians: the presence of God in the church—“the home of God by the Spirit” (2:22). As a means of that presence, Jesus dispenses gifts of his grace (= empower¬ment) for the unity and working of his body (4:7-16): “To each of us grace has been given.” This theme of the presence and empowerment of God in the church comes to a magnificent conclusion with the indescribable privilege of receiving the pieces of the armor of God as the letter’s conclusion. (Don’t get lost in the images of the individual pieces of the armor, but remember their purpose [“for our battle is not against flesh and blood . . .”] as representations of the presence and gifts of God “in Christ.”)

By being the church . . .

The end result of this enlightenment, the encouragement, and the power of God is so that we can know what we are and live up to it. We are to live worthy of our calling (4:1-2) “in Christ.” Whereas the first half of Ephesians tilts toward the learning or enlightenment side, as Paul is inclined to do, the second half is about how we live as God’s new creation humanity in Christ—on how we be the church. To fundamental values of loving community (4:25-32), we are to live in love (5:1-7), in light (5:8-14), and in wisdom (5:15-21), “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians is a book about what it means to be the church, with special focus on the challenge of living out the purposes of God as the united, one body of Christ. The reigning, lordship of Christ is for the church, which Jesus loves passionately as his body and his bride (5:22-33).

Because . . .

I threw that in, didn’t I? I did it because I believe that the basic or major premise of Ephesians, the belief or teaching that all of this is founded on, is expressed at the conclusion of the Introduction to the letter in 1:20-23: that Jesus is Lord “over all things for the church, which is his body.” Because Jesus is Lord over all things for the church, we can be encouraged, etc. You can use this idea to start almost any statement regarding the content/purpose of Ephesians. So, if you want to be very wordy like I usually am, you could add this to the end of this summarizing expression.

My “backpacking” of Ephesians (for the moment) looks like this:

Be enlightened . . .
    Be encouraged . . .
        And be empowered . . .
            By being the church . . .
Because Jesus is Lord over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness . . .

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Bullet-Point Snapshot of 2 Thessalonians

In the past, I might not have looked to 2 Thessalonians as a major source of guidance and exhortation when thinking about books of the Bible–but as sort of an appendage to 1 Thessalonians. I don’t think that anymore.

As part of the 6-Steps of Bible Study, we like to make a summary or snapshot of a book of the Bible to help us encapsulate and remember the main points. How about this as a title and summary of 2 Thessalonians:

“A Prescription for Spiritual Health”

2:13: . . . chosen “for salvation through the sanctification of the Spirit and belief in the truth”

2 Thessalonians B-P Snapshot

• Don’t worry: At the right time, Jesus will come again and set things straight
• Stand and hold: Tradition and teaching matter (or simply: truth matters)
• Work hard: So you can live and share the gospel effectively
• Stay engaged: “Don’t ever get tired of doing good”
• Ring a bell—loud and clear—so others can follow and can stay in step

Snippets (how about a “snip-shot”?)

1. Don’t worry . . . (because you put your faith in God and his plans for the future)
2. Stand and hold . . .
3. Work hard . . .
4. Engage for good . . .
5. Point the way . . .

Someone Might Preach a Sermon

Suffering . . . and waiting for Jesus
Standing for truth
Working hard
Engaging for good
Helping others stay the course

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God wants us to . . .

I’d like to add (to the previous post about a “bullet-point snapshot”) one more way of trying to get our arms around a book of God in terms of summarizing its primary purpose. In order to pull it all together and take it with us, how would you complete this sentence? (From 1 Thessalonians . . .)

God wants us to . . .

This is our goal in studying a book of God: to know what God wants–to know and do his will, in other words. For 1 Thessalonians, I’ll take a stab:

God wants us to keep on growing, no matter what.

Of course, we then need to expand these ideas to include the material from the book. We want to define “growing” (“sanctification”) to include both, fundamental teachings (about the 2nd coming of Christ, for example) and living (learning to create and build marriages in sanctification and honor, for example). We’d want to expand “no matter what” to include the idea of suffering for our faith (as the Thessalonians were doing).

So . . . how would you complete the sentence “God wants us to . . .” from your study of 1 Thessalonians? Anybody brave enough to share some examples in the comments? 🙂


Bullet-Point Snapshot of 1 Thessalonians

As part of the PRAISE method of Bible reading, described on the 6 Bible Study Steps page,

Step 1: Pray
Step 2: Read
Step 3: Analyze
Step 4: Interpret
Step 5: Summarize
Step 6: Exercise

Step # 5 is to make a list of the top 3-5 points or purposes of the book (= a bullet-point summary or snapshot).

Here are a couple of my attempts to create a title and a bullet-point snapshot for 1 Thessalonians:


More and More: Serving God while Waiting for Jesus—in Spite of Suffering

Alternative (Providing a Bullet-Point Snapshot)

Growing in God: in Faith, in Love, in Hope, and in Encouragement

If we expand this, it provides a nice inkblot-zapping framework that you can use quickly to “weigh” a verse cited from the book of 1 Thessalonians (as it will help to jog your memory of the book-level context):

Growing in God:
     . . . in Faith
    •  in the good news of Jesus
    •  the teachings of Jesus
    •  and the faithfulness of God
    . . . in Love
    •  in marriage
    •  in community
    •  in lifestyle
    . . . in Hope
    •  in the 2nd coming of Jesus
    •  the resurrection and reunion with Christ
    •  and in the final judgment of God
    . . . and in Encouragement
    •  in the face of suffering
    •  for each other within a community of faith

Memorize this or something like it (based on your own work in the text) and you join the elite club of inkblot-zappers for the Bible book of 1 Thessalonians.

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God Desires . . .

Since we don’t have a lot of time in our online meetings and now that we are moving into the “so-what,” living side of the letter, I think I’ll begin asking some application questions.

Eph 4:1-16 is—at least in one sense—the focal point of the letter, since it contains the first and main “Request” of the letter. Everything before it flows toward it, while the exhortations that follow expound the lifestyle necessary to live up to the one, united and equipped community of Christ. So I think we can be fairly confident of the need to apply these teachings to our lives.

Eph 4:1-6 affirms that there is one body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, and petitions the audience to live up to that one calling, with gentleness, humility, and patience, striving to maintain the unity of the Spirit by the bond of peace. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that God desires oneness in the body of Christ. The principle is load and clear.

God desires unity in the church.

So what does this mean about how Christians should view their relationship with other Christians, other churches, and other denominations? What does it say about the concept of denominationalism? Does it support “ecumenism”? Are there any legitimate boundaries that would cause a person or group of people to separate themselves from or “excommunicate” others from the church? How does one “divide” the body of Christ (to create the lack of peace)? (It might help here to consider the state between Jews and Gentiles that had been overcome in Christ.)

As we work through some of our applications, I think we can use a series of “God desires” statements. God desires unity in the church—so much so that we could see many of the expressions in Ephesians going to support this idea:

Because the church is “in Christ,” God desires . . .
Because the church is the new creation/humanity of God, God desires . . .
Because the church is God’s plan for uniting all things in Christ, God desires . . .
Because the church is the body of Christ, God desires . . .
Because the church is the bride of Christ, God desires . . .
Because God overcame hatred and created peace in the church, God desires . . .
Because the church is the place where God dwells, God desires . . .
Because Christ is dispensing his grace as power upon the church, God desires . . .
Because Christ loves the church (died for and is living for the presentation of her to himself), God desires . . .

Let’s generalize or abstract the teaching further. The implication is that the plan of God for the universe being accomplished in and through the church (according to the will of God) is of utmost importance to God. “Duh!” The church is the body of Christ. So I think we can legitimately say that God (like himself) wants us to value, protect, love, build, and participate in the church (if we want to be a part of what God is doing). Check out the statement a little later in Ephesians: “. . . as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her . . . so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

So, a couple of questions:

What do we think of the church? Do we love the church? What are we/you doing to honor, build, and be a part of the church? Can we be a part of presenting the church to Christ “in splendor,” without sport or wrinkle?

What is the church?

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A Refrigerator-Posted Prayer

One of the most famous, refrigerator-posted, prayers of the Bible is found in Ephesians 3:14-21, and I understand why: it’s a powerfully worded prayer that asks for things every Christian wants, as it reminds us that God is able to do much more than anything we can ask or think: things like (1) being strengthened with power through his Spirit in our inner being (we might say spiritually and emotionally) (2) for God to put (to indwell) Christ in our hearts through faith, (3) being rooted and grounded in love, (4) so that we might be enabled to comprehend (with all the saints) the breadth, length, height, and depth—to know the love of Christ that goes beyond knowledge, and (5) that we might be filled with all the fullness of God. And if God can do much more than that, why wouldn’t we want to be reminded of his amazing grace and power upon us and in us?

But let me ask you, have you ever thought about what these things really mean . . . in the context of Ephesians? Are they just generic, “broad-as-a-barn” concepts, that can be understand and applied by everyone and anyone at all times, anywhere? Well . . . sort of . . . Maybe. But maybe not.

The ideas are certainly broad and powerful. But knowing what you know about Ephesians thus far, can you begin to see how they might apply within the book-level context of Ephesians (Paul and his audience)? That is, how they might pertain to the subject matter Paul has been discussing and perhaps to the situation that lies behind the letter?

For instance, remember that in the very last verse before this prayer (3:13), Paul asked his audience not to be discouraged because of what had happened to him and his current situation. Discouragement! Hmm. And overcoming discouragement. How do we do that? Paul has been telling us that his ministry and everything that came with it was according to the working of God’s power. Being able to trust that God is in control, even in the worst of circumstances, and that God has not forgotten or abandoned his powerful work in us/Paul flows naturally into just such a prayer to strengthen his audience emotionally (in their hearts) through faith in Christ. Since God has shown such great love to us in Christ (“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love . . .”), and since Christ rules for the church, do we not have reason to hope, be encouraged, and strengthened?

But let me ask you a question. Would the prayer apply in the same way if Paul was not living out and up to his calling in Christ? (“For this reason, I, Paul, am the prisoner/ minister of Christ for the Gentiles.”) Or what if the Gentile audience decides not to strive to live up to “the calling with which they were called”? In other words, is there a relationship between the power to comprehend, to be encouraged, standing firm against the fiery arrows of the evil one—of God’s abundant riches and blessings in Christ—and understanding/accepting our place (by the gifts of Christ’s grace [see 4:1-16]) in God’s ongoing plan for the church?

(Sorry for “the length . . . and height and depth” of this blog. I got carried away. 🙂 I’ll do better next time.)

Check out the words and ideas of the prayer in Eph 3:14-21, and see if you begin to see the connections—to see the features of this prayer as “encapsulations” or “distillations” of important points of Ephesians to this point. For example, why is God described as the father of “every family in heaven and on earth”? How does comprehension relate to power, and does the audience need to “comprehend” some things? Why should they comprehend with all the saints? And what about “the fullness of God”? Has Paul mentioned that? Are we headed to more about that in the chapters that follow? (see 4:7-16).

In other words, have you ever noticed (“comprehend”) the marvelous prayer of Eph 3:14-21 as a key, transitional moment in the book of Ephesians? . . . how its ideas flow from, sum up, and highlight important themes?

It’s a good moment when we pause to read this prayer on the refrigerator, or wherever we see it. But what meaning and power was first inspirited into the prayer by the Spirit’s moment within the book of Ephesians as part of God’s first conversations with his people? Have you ever associated God doing more than we ask or imagine with your calling in Christ (like Paul: “according to the power at work in us”)?

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The Calling . . . the Inheritance . . . the Power (Part 2)

Last week I suggested that Paul deals with the 3 explicitly listed themes (1:18-19) in order in Eph 2:1-3:13. The “triadic themes” of Ephesians are developed, I think, like this:

2:1-10: the hope of his calling
2:11-22: the glorious riches of his inheritance among the saints
3:1-13: the surpassing greatness of his power upon us who believed . . .

Now, that doesn’t mean that he’s finished by the end of chapter 3. We may have learned some things about the calling, the inheritance, and the power, but I think he has much more to say about “the hope of his calling,” “the glorious riches of his inheritance among the saints,” and “the surpassing greatness of his power”—things that we won’t learn about until we’ve reached the end of the letter, and beyond. In other words, we haven’t exhausted the hope . . ., the riches . . ., and the surpassing greatness . . .

It’s pretty easy to see the ideas of the calling and the inheritance lurking behind Eph 2:1-22, but is Eph 3:1-13 really about “the power”? This is one of those cases where knowing a little about the way “they did it back then” can help us understand the focus and meaning of a Bible text.  In Bible days, writers and speakers often shaped (that is, “structured”) their material in circles—sort of like this:

A  My first idea                  A tree fell loudly in the woods,
B      My second idea          But no one heard it.
B’      My second idea          If no one heard it,
A’  My first idea again       Did it really fall loudly?

These circular patterns sometimes grew into elaborate and detailed systems, with even whole books of the Bible structured this way.

Perhaps the key idea—besides the fact that the beginning and the end often made a contrast with the middle—is that the center or middle of the pattern received the emphasis or was the most important point of the shape. As I set forth in the Study Guide, Eph 3:1-13 has this sort of a circular shape.  Notice the beginning, the middle, and the end:

For this reason, I Paul am the prisoner of Christ for you Gentiles . . . .

    of which I became a servant according to the gift of the grace of God given to me
        according to the working of his power
    to me the least of all saints this grace was given . . . .

Therefore I ask [you] not to become discouraged in my tribulation for you, which is your glory.

Notice how imprisonment and the idea of (overcoming) discouragement is “solved” by the grace and power of God (in the middle).  Also notice how the word “grace” is connected to the idea of power.  We’ll see much more about this in chapter 4, as Paul explains how God’s grace as power is given to all the various parts of the body of Christ for the building up and strengthening of the church.

In Eph 3:1-13, Paul is a tremendous example of “the surpassing greatness of his power upon us who believed.”

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The Calling . . . The Inheritance . . . The Power

In Eph 1:18-19, Paul sets forth 3 topics that he wants the audience to come to understand by reading/hearing his letter: (1) the hope of his calling, (2), the riches of his inheritance among the saints, and (3) the surpassing greatness of his power upon us who believed . . . So what do these phrases mean? And where are they developed in the book?

Let’s start with the first one: “the hope of his calling.” By the end of chapter 3, Paul prays again that God would grant his listeners to understand with all the saints the full dimensions of God’s love in Christ—as if, they are now in a better position to understand. After its introduction in 1:18, the word “calling” is not used again until the beginning of chapter 4, where, with multiple repetitions of the word, Paul exhorts them to live up to the calling with which they have been called. Again, the implication is that the first theme—the hope of his calling—has been developed by the beginning of chapter 4. How can they live up to what they don’t understand? So it would appear that the “the hope of his calling” has been discussed somewhere between 1:23 and 3:14.

So let me just ask you, what does it mean to be called by God? And what are the riches of his inheritance among the saints? (We’ll look into the 3rd theme of the greatness of his power next time.)

In the opening prayer passage (1:3-14), Paul enumerates some of the blessings of God poured out on “those who were the first to hope in Christ” in two major sections: (1) “adoption as sons . . . redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (1:5-8) and (2) the revelation of the mystery to sum up all things in Christ . . . having “obtained an inheritance” (1:9-12). Paul then moves to the audience who also had (1) heard and believed the gospel of salvation and (2) had been sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, the guarantee of the inheritance. Beginning to see a pattern? Grace as adoption/redemption/forgiveness and grace as inheritance/Spirit/gifting? (These are the 2 basic meanings of “grace” in the Bible: grace as pardon and grace as power.)

Calling . . . inheritance.

Okay. In the spirit of this progression, check out Eph 2:1-10 and then Eph 2:11-22. Think “hope of his calling” while you read 2:1-10. Does it fit? Let’s approach it from the other side. What do you have if you don’t have “the hope of his calling”? Eph 2:1-10: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked . . . . good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” And what if you don’t have “the riches of his inheritance among the saints”? Eph 2:11-22: “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles . . . were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise . . .” But now, those who were far had been brought near in Christ—with all the trimmings. They are now “no longer strangers and aliens, but . . . fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Or as Paul says in 3:6, they had become “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel,” described as “the unsearchable riches of Christ” in 3:9. In other words, they are full members of God’s house and partakers of the riches of his inheritance.

There’s a lot more to be said about these subjects, but as you study 2:1-22 this week, see if this section (in 2 parts) doesn’t “open the eyes of our hearts” to “the hope of his calling” and “the glorious riches of his inheritance among the saints.” And note that they are among the saints.


Extra, Extra: “. . . we who were the first to hope in Christ”

This is “extra.” So no worries if it seems a little too academic. But give it a try. You might find it interesting.

Classical Greek Rhetoric taught speakers how to make good introductions for their speeches. The primary goals were to gain the favor of the audience, often by praising them, and to bring up or “introduce” the subjects and purposes of the speech. In his letters, Paul uses a section of material at the beginning (that’s come to be known as the “Thanksgiving”) to accomplish these goals: “I thank my God always for you, making mention of you in my prayers . . .” In these paragraphs, Paul often praises the audience for various aspects of their faith that will be important for doing what he will ask of them in the letters.

Ancient Rhetoricians also taught that in cases where the audience may not be receptive to what you are about to say, you have to approach the introduction differently. In these cases, you may have to take a more “subtle” approach and “insinuate” yourself or your topic into the heart of the audience. They called this type of introduction an “Ephodos” or “Insinuatio.” It took careful planning and skill to defend someone whom an audience didn’t like, change people’s minds, or convince the listeners to do something they didn’t really want to do.

Instead of praising his readers (the Gentile Christians) in the opening of Ephesians, as he usually does (and he does a little later), Paul starts the letter praying like a Jew, praising God and celebrating the good things (“spiritual blessings”) he has poured out on the “we” group—those who were the first to hope in Christ. It doesn’t become clear exactly who he’s talking about, however, until he switches to “you,” the Gentile readers, in 1:13. Interesting. Subtle and crafty.

Commenting on a certain type of introduction, Aristotle said,

“. . . one must make the hearer believe that he shares the praise, either himself, or his family, or his pursuits, or at any rate in some way or other. For Socrates says truly in his Funeral Oration that ‘it is easy to praise Athenians in the presence of Athenians, but not in the presence of Lacedaemonians.’”

By celebrating God’s blessings upon the Jews in the form of a Jewish prayer in a way that seems to include the audience, but then gradually makes it clear that he’s not yet talking about them, Paul builds an important foundation for accomplishing the purposes of the letter (unity between Gentiles and Jews in the church). He reminds them that he himself is a Jew, and by the time the audience is able to tell that he’s not talking about them, the Athenians have been praised in the presence of the Lacedaemonians (= the Jews have been praised/affirmed as part of God’s will and divine plan in the presence of the Gentiles).

Wow! How skilled and crafty! How inspired!

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The Challenge of Reconciliation

You have to write a speech. There are two people who don’t like each other, or two groups of people who are “feuding” and don’t get along very well for some reason—people who have had a long history of hostility, called each other names (how about “the uncircumcision” or “foreskins!”, e.g.), look down their noses at one another, etc. It’s your job to convince one of the groups that it’s vital for them to think differently, respect, and learn to get along with the other group. That it’s a new day, a new world, and the two sides are actually being brought together for a new future and purpose. (I’m thinking of Hezbollah or Hamas and Israel, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Hatfields and McCoys, etc.)

How would you start that speech? What strategy would you use to convince your audience that “peace” is important and even vital to their own well-being? And what if something had recently happened to inflame old prejudices and passions? In other words, you have a difficult case.

Ephesians is written to Gentile Christians to maintain and support peace in the church between Jews and Gentiles as part of God’s new creation in Christ. (Remember, many Jews wouldn’t even eat with non-Jews because they thought they were beneath them—spiritually unclean.)

Put yourself in Paul’s place. How do you start? What do you say? How do you change hearts and minds about deeply engrained prejudice and even hatred? Think about that as you delve into Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I believe realizing the difficult nature of Paul’s task in Ephesians will help us “get” some of the things that seem unique or different in this letter.