Okay, so I’m not making any promises but I’m going to start blogging through the book of Ephesians verse-by-verse. I’ve actually been thinking about doing this for over a year now and started studying Ephesians in depth earlier this year. Then in his Wheaton Chapel Message, N. T. Wright challenged the students to memorize Ephesians by studying and committing to memory one verse a day. The idea is that if you learn what a verse means it will be easier to memorize, and if you memorize and meditate on it, what it means will actually take root in your life. Well, I’m going for it and we’ll see. Each day I’ll provide the TNIV translation of the verse, walk through it bit-by-bit (with moderate attention to detail), and then I’ll offer my own translation (which is meant to work alongside, never to replace, other translations).
Ephesians 1.1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (TNIV)
There is so much packed into this little verse. A year ago I decided to start blogging through Ephesians but when I approached this verse and saw how much would need to be said, I gave up! On the surface, and following ancient letter-writing convention, it is a simple identification of sender and recipients. It tells us who is writing the letter as well as to whom it is being written. The author is Paul, who identifies himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus. To be an apostle is to be sent out to accomplish some task or purpose; it is to be a delegate, an emissary, or an agent. Each of these translations bring out some nuance of apostle. I can’t help but think of the blues brothers – “I’m on a mission from God.” In fact, Paul clearly believes he is on this mission by God’s desire or decree – his “will.”
By the will of God, Paul has been sent on behalf of Jesus, who he knows to be the Messiah (“Christ” is the Greek word for “Messiah”). We often think of “Christ” as Jesus’ last name, but that’s not right – “Christ” or “Messiah” is a title for the promised King of Israel, the Deliverer who will save / rescue / liberate / redeem God’s people from evil and sin. To say that Jesus is the Messiah is to say that he is the fulfillment of entire Old Testament story; he is the long-awaited King from the line of David. He is both the religious and political leader of the people of God, the one who would reconcile them to God and redeem them from bondage to the powers that be. (Of course the categories “religious” and “political” were hardly distinguished in the ancient world; but they often are for us – or at least we think they are – so it’s important to stress that this title includes both.) It is difficult to know how to translate this word to get at all the necessary ingredients. “Messiah” rightly emphasizes that Jesus is the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s promises; “King” rightly stresses Jesus as a political leader of an actual community (not to mention brings out the connection with Jesus’ own proclamation of God’s Kingdom). “Messianic King” would probably be best, but that’s a bit cumbersome.
So that’s a (tiny!) bit about Paul, now to his letter-receivers. He is writing to the hagioi, a word that technically means “saints” or “holy ones.” But we typically think of “saints” as being special examples of devotion or commitment; it is instructive that Paul does not use the word in this way; for Paul all Christians or members of the church are saints. But what does it mean? Again, the dictionary definition is “set apart,” but that doesn’t tell the whole story. To call the church “saints” is to draw a tight connection between the church and the ancient people of Israel. God called Israel to be his special people set apart from among all the nations, to be the ones through whom he would bring salvation to all nations. To oversimplify things a bit, God gave Israel the Law (or Torah) to begin to teach them how to live as an counter-cultural alternative community according to God’s design, so that the other nations could see what life was supposed to look like. They were a “new creation” people of sorts, called in their life together to demonstrate God’s ways. From Israel came the Messiah, and so God’s promise to redeem the world through them came to fulfillment. And now this mandate has been renewed for the church, who have an even greater “Torah” – the way (i.e. the teachings and example) of the Messiah himself. The church is called to be “set apart” from all other communities of the world and to offer a counter-cultural, counter-imperial, alternative way of life that takes its cues from God’s full revelation of his person and will in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. To the extent that we allow other beliefs, commitments, models, and allegiances to encroach upon our radical devotion to Jesus alone, we lose the alternative flavor of our calling and God’s mission is imperiled. Paul further identifies the church as those who are faithful in Christ Jesus. Notice that he says in Christ and not to Christ. The end result is the same (so either translation works), but it’s important to note how Paul gets there. For Paul the church exists in Christ (one of his favorite phrases), which means so much more than I could express here (or anywhere else for that matter)!! Suffice it to say for now that it is a way of drawing the tightest possible connection between Jesus’ victory and destiny and our own. In the same way that a King’s people would be victorious only in relation to the King’s own victory, we are saved in Christ. And we continue to live, move, and have our being in Christ – that is, as those who belong to Christ, whose destiny is wrapped up with his. Again, the upshot is that Paul is writing to those whom he believes will be faithful to their identity as the people of the crucified and risen Messiah.
Well, we only made it halfway through the verse, but this post is already too long! Next time I’ll finish verse 1 and after that we’ll try to move a little faster.
Here is my own translation of Ephesians 1.1a: Paul, an agent of King Jesus by the will of God, to the alternative communities in Ephesus, those who are faithful in King Jesus.