Ephesians 1:3–14 forms part of the lectionary readings for the second Sunday after Christmas, which is January 3rd. Ephesus was located at the intersection of several major east-west trade routes and became a vital commercial, political, and educational center of the Roman Empire. The size of the city is represented by its theater, which could seat over 24,000 people.
Ephesus was perhaps best known for its magnificent temple of Diana, or Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. (Diana was the Greek goddess of the moon, forests, wild animals, and women in childbirth.) More importantly, Ephesus figured prominently and dramatically in early church history, for Paul used the city as a center for his missionary work in that region.
The apostle evangelized Ephesus toward the end of his second missionary journey (Acts 18:18–21). Before he departed, he left a Christian couple named Priscilla and Aquila to continue his work (v. 26).
When Paul wrote Ephesians, he was no longer an evangelist on the move. Instead, he was a prisoner in Rome.
Also, the church the apostle was now writing to was not opposing him and his teaching. Rather, it was a sound congregation that was ready to receive advanced instruction in theology and ethics.
Paul began the epistle by identifying himself as an apostle. Although Paul was always ready to admit his unworthiness to receive grace, he never underrated his role as an apostle, or ambassador, for Christ, since it had been given him “by the will of God” (Eph 1:1).
Paul called his recipients “saints”—literally, “holy ones.” The apostle was not addressing certain Christians who were holier than others. Instead, he was addressing all his readers.
Protestants believe that all Christians are saints because Jesus has set us apart as His own special people. He has also made us holy with His own righteousness.
Furthermore, Paul called his readers “believers in Christ Jesus.” They trusted in the Son for salvation, and their baptismal union in Him was the basis for them faithfully following Him.
The apostle concluded his greeting with a blessing on his readers. He wished them “grace and peace” (v. 2). The essence of the gospel is the grace of God given to undeserving people. Peace is the harmony experienced by those in a restored relationship with the Lord.
The general nature of Ephesians makes it difficult to determine the specific circumstances that gave rise to the letter. Nevertheless, it is clear that the recipients were predominately Gentiles (3:1) who, prior to their salvation, were estranged from citizenship in the kingdom of Israel (2:11), but now were devout followers of the Lord (1:1). Thanks to the gracious gift of the Father, they enjoyed the spiritual blessings that come through faith in the Son, including peace with the triune God.
Ordinarily in Paul’s letters, he followed up his greeting to his readers with thanksgiving for them. In this epistle, however, he delayed the expression of gratitude so that he could offer extended praise to the Father (vv. 3–14).
The apostle extolled the Father for the spiritual blessings He has given to the Son’s followers (v. 3). The Father has blessed us, among other ways, by choosing us (vv. 4–6), redeeming us (vv. 7–8), and revealing His eternal plan of redemption to us (vv. 9–10).
The Father sometimes blesses His people materially as well as spiritually, but in verse 3, Paul chose to focus on spiritual blessings. These are certain, for they have been secured for us “in the heavenly places.” They flow from the Father, through the Son, to us.
Verse 3 is only one of many places in Scripture where the word “blessing” appears. It refers to an act of declaring (or wishing) favor and goodness upon others.
In the Old Testament, important people blessed those with less power or influence. For example, the patriarchs declared God’s favor upon their children (Gen 49:1–28).
Leaders frequently blessed their subordinates, especially when preparing to leave them (for instance, Moses and Joshua, Deut 31). The Lord’s people bless Him by showing gratitude and singing songs of praise (Ps 103:1–2).
God also blesses His people through spiritual and physical enrichment. For instance, He showers them with life and fruitfulness (Gen 1:22, 28).
The Creator’s foremost blessing is turning people from their wicked ways and pardoning their sins (Acts 3:25–26). The atoning sacrifice of the Son is the basis for the Father’s favor and goodness to believers (Eph 1:3).
In Ephesians 1, the first spiritual blessing Paul mentioned is that the Father “chose us” (v. 4) and “predestined us” (v. 5). These terms are parallel, yet have different shades of meaning.
Just as the Father chose the Jewish nation to be His own and to receive the promised land as an inheritance, before He made the world, He also chose Christian believers to be His children and to receive the inheritance of eternal life. It is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Pet 1:4), for it is eternally “kept in heaven” for us.
Moreover, the Father chose believers “to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph 1:4). To be holy means to be distinctly different from the world so that the Father can use us for His purposes. Our holiness is the result of our having been chosen, not the reason we were chosen. To be “blameless” means to be free of the immoral and selfish lifestyle that characterizes people who exist apart from God.
The Father also predestined believers to be “adopted” (v. 5) as His children. Through Jesus Christ, the Son, we become members of the Father’s heavenly family.
Under Roman law, adopted children enjoyed the same standing and entitlements as natural-born children. Similarly, the Father regards believers as His true children and as recipients of all the benefits that go with that status. It’s no wonder that believers give the Father praise for the wonderful grace He has poured out on them in His Son, whom the Father dearly loves (v. 6).
Despite the magnificence of our having been chosen by the Father, this spiritual blessing is not the only one we receive. Paul also mentioned the blessing of redemption (vv. 7–8).
Through redemption, the Father makes His choosing effective in our lives. The Greek noun translated “redemption” (v. 7) refers to a ransom. It was used in ancient times to describe buying back someone who had been sold into slavery or had become a prisoner of war. The noun also described freeing a person from the penalty of death.
Because we were born with a sinful nature, the Father was not attracted to us due to any goodness He saw in us. Despite our sinful condition, He rescued us from our state of separation from His holiness.
The Father did the above by sending His Son to become the sacrifice for our sins. By shedding His blood on the cross, the Messiah ransomed us from slavery to sin and from the sentence of death under which we languished.
Closely related to redemption is “forgiveness.” The Greek noun Paul used had a variety of meanings, including “to send off,” “to release,” “to give up,” “to pardon,” and “to hurl.” The basic idea is that when we receive the effect of the Son’s redemption through faith, the Father releases us from the penalty of our sins and casts our sin debt far away from us.
What the Father did for us through His Son was in harmony with the riches of the Father’s grace. In addition to showering us with His unmerited favor, the Father has also lavished us “with all wisdom and insight” (v. 8).
Before we believed, we did not have spiritual discernment. Yet, since coming to a knowledge of the truth, we can now see how things really are and understand how the Father wants us to live.
Another spiritual blessing Paul listed is our ability to know the “mystery of [God’s] will” (v. 9). The Greek noun rendered “mystery” generally denotes that which is hidden or secret. For the apostle, a “mystery” is a truth that was once hidden, but has now been unveiled through the Messiah.
The Father’s disclosure of His will to us was according to His good pleasure, which He centered in His Son. Paul declared that the Father’s eternal plan was to head up all things in the Son at the divinely appointed time (v. 10). This includes everything “in heaven and on earth.”
The Greek verb translated “bring . . . together” means “to sum up.” In Paul’s day, when a column of figures was tallied, the total was placed at the top of the column. In a similar fashion, at the end of history, all things will be seen to add up to the Son.
From eternity, the Father has intended to give the Son possession of all things. Yet, from our viewpoint within history, we can see that the Father set His plan in motion at just the right time, namely, when the Son came into the world at His incarnation.
Moreover, the Father will bring His plan to a glorious conclusion at just the right time, namely, when the Son comes into the world at His second advent. On that day, our sorrows will be over, our conflicts will come to an end, and our weaknesses will be replaced by strength.
Previously, in verses 4 and 5, Paul mentioned the Father’s plan for believers. Now the apostle returned to that theme.
Paul noted that the Father causes all things to happen in accordance with the “purpose of his will” (v. 11). This included ethnic Jews such as Paul coming to faith in the Son.
The language of Ephesians (particularly the first half) is richer and more effusive than the language in other letters Paul wrote. The apostle’s style is demonstrated in the phrase, “the plan of him who works out everything in keeping with the purpose of his will.”
The above phrase contains an inclusive term (“everything”), followed by several interconnected terms (“plan,” “works out,” “purpose,” “will”). This style suits Paul’s subject of the Father’s grand plan for believers, the church, and the universe.
The divine purpose was that the conversion of Jews to the Son would bring the Father eternal praise (v. 12). Similarly, according to Romans 8:28, “all things work together for the good of those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
The historical record is that the apostles and other Jews were the first to trust in the Son. Admittedly, many Jews who were contemporaries of Paul rejected the Messiah. Nevertheless, a remnant of that generation of Jews formed the nucleus of the church.
Through these believers, the gospel went out to the entire world. Those early disciples of Jesus were walking testimonies of the Father’s glory.
With Ephesians 1:13, Paul changed pronouns from “we” to “you.” He was now referring specifically to the Ephesian believers.
Although Jewish Christians had been chosen for their role in starting the church, this should not make the Ephesians feel like outsiders. They, too, were included in the Son’s spiritual body. Expressed differently, Jewish and Gentile believers formed one united church.
Paul delineated the stages of development by which the Gentiles had become “included in Christ.” It is the same process through which anyone is spiritually regenerated.
First, the Gentiles had “heard the word of truth” when Paul or others had proclaimed the gospel to them. Then they “believed” the truth they heard. The result was their new birth.
It’s clarifying to note that all three persons of the Trinity are involved in this salvific process. The Father has blessed us because of our spiritual union with His Son. Furthermore, the gift of the Spirit identifies us as God’s spiritual children.
Moreover, the Spirit is the believers’ guarantee that they belong to the Father and that He will do for them what He has promised in His Son. The Spirit’s abiding presence confirms the reality of the Father’s gift of faith and of adoption into the Father’s family. These are excellent reasons for us to give unending praise to God.
Paul noted that when his readers trusted in the Son, they were “marked . . . with a seal” (v. 13), which is the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Father identified believers as His own by giving them the Spirit, whom He promised long ago.
By calling the Spirit a seal, Paul may have raised several images in the minds of his readers. At that time, seals were put on documents to vouch for their authenticity. They were also attached to goods being shipped to indicate right of possession and safeguard protection. Sometimes they represented an office in the government. Any of these uses of seals might symbolize a part of the Spirit’s work in the lives of those who follow the Messiah.
Yet, for Paul, the Spirit is not only a seal. He is also a “deposit” (v. 14). In the apostle’s day, a deposit was an initial payment or first installment, assuring a retailer that the full purchase price would be forthcoming.
At the end of time, believers will receive the final installment of eternal life from the riches of the Father’s grace. During the interim, the Spirit’s presence in our lives assures us of coming glory. This giving of the Spirit is also to the “praise of [God’s] glory.”
Key ideas to contemplate
In this week’s Scripture, Paul launched into a magnificent doxology, or list of praises, of what the Father has done for believers in the Son. There is nothing quite like this profile in all of Scripture. It highlights everything the Father lavishes on all His spiritual children.
1. Appreciating God’s blessings. Do we know what it means that we have (through no effort or merit of our own) been granted by the Father (before whom we once stood on the brink of destruction) spiritual blessings that make the fortunes of the world look like play money? If we do, we will respond, heart and soul, to the Father in unrestrained praise.
2. Recognizing God’s provision of grace and peace. Paul noted that God the Father, through His Son, the Lord Jesus, has bestowed grace and peace upon us. The Father provides His grace, or unmerited favor, on sinners at the moment of their salvation. Jesus’ death on the cross also makes it possible for believers to experience peace with God.
3. Discerning the basis for our holiness. Paul said that the Father chooses believers in His Son to be “holy and blameless” (Eph 1:4). In other words, the Father loves us so much that He made a way for us to be morally pure and spotless in His presence.
The faith the Father gives us in the Son, through the means of grace, is the basis for our holiness. The Father derives great pleasure in making this possible.
4. Anticipating the future. The Father will bring all heavenly and earthly things under the lordship of His Son. This means that every aspect of the universe will come under the Messiah’s authority, when the Father establishes His eternal kingdom.