A Reflection on Ephesians 1:17-23
Paul tells the Ephesians that Jesus has been seated “far above every rule and authority and power and dominion.” Not that he one day will be, but that he already is. Even more shockingly, he says that this power is available “for us who believe.” What can this possibly mean? Does it mean we can do whatever we want, or that everything in the world is precisely the way Jesus wants it? When we see the world around us – the violence, poverty, loneliness, disease, injustice, and natural disasters – how can we believe that Christ is truly reigning in power? Is his reign only “spiritual” and not “real”? If so, what practical difference does it make to our “real” fears, hopes and sufferings?
I want to show that this truth has enormous practical implications for our everyday lives. Jesus revealed something about the deepest level of reality that revolutionized our understanding both of what power is and of where it comes from. To see this, we must first understand the Bible passage in its original context. How did its first audience understand Paul’s message and how did it change the way they lived?
Power in the Ancient World
The ancient world was characterised by the worship of power. Power was what you needed for security, comfort and simply to get what you wanted. Everything you can imagine was tried, bought, sold and done to gain more control over one’s circumstances amidst an ultimately cruel and unjust world in which blind, random fate had the final say.
The main features of power as understood by the Ephesian citizens were as follows:
- No dichotomy between natural and supernatural At least, no sharp division. Spiritual and political forces were deeply interwoven and had mutual influence on one another, but ultimately political circumstances were governed by higher spiritual forces, as Paul says in Eph 6:12.
- Magic is impersonal, religion is personal. The city of Ephesus in the 1st century was one of the great centres of magic. Magicians and sorcerers were everywhere, selling ways to manipulate the spiritual world for greater security and control. But compared to religion, magic had the same kind of place in people’s everyday lives that science and technology have today. Where religion connected you to personalities who may or may not do what you ask, magic was an attempt to manipulate impersonal spiritual principles for consistent and reliable results. This made it very popular as a way of gaining control over one’s life.
- Fate has the final say. Ultimately, no matter what magic or political power you had, the supreme power of blind fate ruled over all. You couldn’t escape the random chaos of the world at the end of the day, even though magic could be used to limit and postpone its worst effects. Even the most powerful man in the world – Caesar himself – was ultimately ruled by fate.
So the ordinary residents of Ephesus lived under the shadow of a lot of fear – of evil supernatural forces, of uncontrollable political forces, and of fate itself. This fear drove them to all kinds of magical practices and sorcery to try and gain some limited security and safety amidst the chaos of the real world.
Paul’s Counter-Claims in Ephesians
Into this situations Paul’s words in Ephesians strike like a thunderbolt with a breath-taking message of good news free from fear and the need for control. Paul redefines every term, challenges every presupposition, and proclaims a gospel of unimaginable hope centred on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
So what does this passage do with the above context? I would draw out the following things. For Paul,
- The highest power is personal, not mechanistic or fatal. It cannot be manipulated by incantations or potions or any kind of sorcery. Nothing we do can guarantee the results we want. We cannot control it either by praying with particular words or by living a certain lifestyle. But nor is it blind and chaotic like fate: we can be in relationship with it.
- The Church has access to this power. This doesn’t mean that the Church can do whatever she wants. We have power in the world through our bodies, but our bodies do not control us. Likewise, as Jesus’ body (v. 23), the Church is the way Jesus exercises his power in the world, and his power is released through her only insofar as she obeys his commands. To imagine the Church can act autonomously apart from the will of Christ would be like a hand cutting itself off from the rest of the body and expecting still to be able to move.
- This power is released through the way of the cross. Paul says that God put this power into effect when he raised Jesus from the dead, which means that Jesus had to die first. The power on offer comes by sacrifice, service, and humility, a deeper power than any that comes by manipulation, control or brute strength. If the Church wants to wield this power, she must follow the example of Christ even to the point of death.
Paul says “immeasurable greatness of God’s power” belongs to “us who believe, according to the working of his mighty power which he worked in Christ by raising him from the dead.” So the power is only available to us through participating in Christ, which means sharing in his sufferings in order to share in his resurrection.
A Concrete Case Study
What does this really look like, though? How does this theology affect our everyday lives? Fortunately we have a clear historical example from the very first people who read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, who treasured and safeguarded it so that it ultimately found its way into our Bibles.
The early Christians were persecuted, harassed, misunderstood and ostracised by the Roman empire, partly because they gave ultimate allegiance to Jesus rather than Caesar. They were called the enemies of humanity, they were blamed for things that weren’t their fault, they were tortured and socially despised. But they never retaliated with force or denied the name of Jesus to save themselves. They continued to love one another and everyone sacrificially, even to the point of death by burning or lions.
Over the course of hundreds of years, the Roman Empire was won over by the Christians’ love for one another. They could not fight the power that had entered the world through Jesus, and eventually the whole of the ancient Western world became Christian.
Ephesians 1 redefines the very nature of power, making it about humility and service based on love rather than control based on fear. The “immeasurable power” available to believers corresponds to the power shown in Christ, who died and was raised. Our access to God’s power comes by dying with Christ, in order to be raised with him. That is the model of God’s love for his children, that is his way of working in the world, that is how he will use the church. If we trust it then we can be free from all fear.
This is hard to believe and still harder to practice day by day. How can we possibly live up to it? Where do we get the strength to believe this in the moments we most need to?
Let us return to the first part of Paul’s prayer. He asks that we will have a spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that we can know the very great hope to which he has called us. Paul is well aware how hard it is to believe what he is saying. His prayer for all of us is that God will penetrate our hearts with its truth so that we can really know it at the deepest level of our being. That is also my prayer.
Image taken from Art4TheGlryOfGod.