Part 2 of a 4-part miniseries on the church
In last week’s post, we started to look at the essential why of church, and came to the conclusion that the key purpose of a local congregation lies beyond itself—in the cosmic, heavenly, spiritual congregation that Jesus Christ is building. This is the primary reality of church in the New Testament, and the local, immediate purposes that we pursue in our churches lives stem from this larger, heavenly reality.
But how exactly? How does the big, primary reality of the heavenly church provide an essential why (and how) for our church life now?
With the possible exception of Colossians, no epistle answers this question more profoundly than Ephesians. And so, as good apprentices to Scripture, in this post we’re going to learn from the Apostle how the big why of Jesus’ heavenly church connects with the everyday why and how of earthly church life.
[A quick note: So as not to get bogged down too much along the way in the wonderful but intricate details of Ephesians, I’ve provided some endnotes for those who want to chase up some of the intricacies; they are referred to along the way like this (#1).]
In Heaven and on Earth
You can tell how massive and mind-blowing the opening chapter of Ephesians is, because half way through Paul pauses to pray for his readers’ comprehension—that God would open the eyes of their hearts to grasp how extraordinary it all is (and he prays much the same again in 3:16-19).
God’s plan is to shower spiritual blessings in the heavenly places upon the adopted, blood-bought people that he has chosen from all eternity to be the inheritance of his Son.
According to Ephesians 1, God’s plan is to shower spiritual blessings in the heavenly places upon the adopted, blood-bought people that he has chosen from all eternity to be the inheritance of his Son.(#1) The risen Jesus Christ is the One in whom everything is brought together, “the things in heaven and the things on earth” (1:10).
This introduces one of the major ideas of the letter: that the work of God in Christ creates a new reality that spans heaven and earth.
Through hearing the gospel and responding to it in faith, all God’s people (both Jews and Gentiles) are united in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, who sits now in the heavenly places far above all rule and authority (1:20-21). We are all now there, spiritually speaking, blessed in the heavenly places ‘in him’—or as 2:5-6 puts it, as Jews and Gentiles, we have all now together been made alive and raised up and seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.(#2) This is the body of Christ, his heavenly gathering or church, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
This cosmic, heavenly reality keeps re-emerging throughout the letter, described in various ways—for example, it’s the holy temple in the Lord in which both Jews and Gentiles are being built together (2:19-22); and it’s the heavenly assembly that Gentiles are now also members of through Christ—thus revealing God’s extraordinary wisdom to the powers that be in the heavenly places (3:1-12; #3).
However, very importantly, this heavenly gathering has an earthly existence too. It’s ‘the whole family in heaven and on earth’ (3:15; #4).
In fact, the agenda of what we do here and now on earth is determined by our membership of that heavenly church and family. This comes out in multiple ways throughout the letter, especially as Paul urges his readers in the second half of the letter to ‘walk’ in a manner worthy of their calling. In light of the heavenly reality, we are called to act in a certain way now; to think cosmic, and act local.
The various aspects of this worthy local walk provide us with the agenda that should direct our everyday lives and our local earthly churches. Let me tease out three of these essentials that are prominent in Ephesians, with one eye on our current unusual COVID circumstances (and also leave one as a cliffhanger for next time).
1. Building the body through apostolic ministry
The first essential item is to build the heavenly church by taking part in ‘apostolic ministry’. ‘Apostolic ministry’ is my catchy summary (!) of the earthly work that builds and grows the heavenly church. It’s the divine work that Paul himself has been commissioned to participate in as a go-between (or minister) of the gospel.(#5) Like the rest of the apostles, he has been entrusted by God with the gospel of Jesus and sent off like a courier to deliver it everywhere, to see it take root and grow, so that all who believe its promises might be included in the body of Christ (3:6).
But the apostolic ministry doesn’t stop with the apostles. By Christ’s gracious gift, it spreads out to a much larger web of gospel activists—starting with the apostles and prophets and evangelists, and cascading out through pastor-teachers and ‘the saints’, and to every single member of the body, all of whom speak the truth of Christ in love to grow and build the body (that’s a quick summary of 4:8-16; #6). What Paul himself is doing as a courier of the word of Christ, he wants the Ephesians to be doing with each other in all sorts of ways (whether in daily conversation in 4:29, or in singing to one another in 5:19, or in fathers teaching their children in 6:4).
As we find ourselves rethinking our local church ministries post-COVID, this agenda item must be at the very top. Our purpose is to build and grow the heavenly body of Christ by seeing its earthly members gathered in through evangelism and conversion, and then grown through the same apostolic ministry of the word—a word that is preached and spoken and shared in a multitude of ways by all the members of the body.
For ministry leaders, this can be expressed in a simple (and essential) question: how can I create, foster, equip and organize as many effective contexts and opportunities as possible in which the word of truth is being spoken by the members of the body for the building of the body?
2. Growing and fortifying members in a threatening world
This building purpose takes place in the context of an ongoing triple threat, traditionally summarised as the world, the flesh and the devil. These were the forces that rendered us spiritually dead in 2:1-3, and they remain as oppositional forces in our earthly lives. In chapters 4-6, Paul speaks of putting off the old corrupt desires and practices of our former lives, and leading a new life of love (4:17-5:2); he speaks of the deceptive, malignant influence of the ‘sons of disobedience’, the darkened, foolish, worldly culture in which we walk every day (5:3-18); and he urges us to be strong and well-armed for our fight against the spiritual schemes and attacks of the devil (6:10-20).
The earthly reality in which we live as members of the heavenly church is full of spiritual warfare. This too generates a key purpose for all our earthly action: to resist, persevere and stand strong in the face of the various earthly threats and powers we face, and to express more and more in our lives the character of the ‘new humanity’ that has been created in Christ.(#7)
The earthly reality in which we live is full of spiritual warfare. This generates a key purpose for all our earthly action: to resist, persevere and stand strong
This, too, is what the ‘building’ work of church life is aiming at—to grow and fortify the members of Christ’s body as they face spiritual threat. This is partly why the past few months of isolation have been so unsettling, and so potentially dangerous. We rightly worry about the spiritual effects of people being deprived of many of the usual avenues for fortifying apostolic ministry. We have all done our best to pull together online opportunities to address that need, but as things start to thaw out, we will need to face the reality that months away from the usual strengthening effect of fellowship will have taken its toll. Some may be slow to return, or not return at all. Others may have found themselves caught up in sinful, selfish attitudes or behaviours that they hadn’t struggled with before (or for some time). As we think about our priorities in re-establishing the normal means of apostolic ministry, this should drive a sense of sober urgency—not only for doing so as soon as reasonably possible, but about the spiritual difficulties we may need to address as we do so.
3. Constancy and boldness in prayer
The other striking implication of the heavenly church is that by being members of it we have a bold and confident access to our heavenly Father, which leads to prayer (3:12-14; cf. 2:8). Paul twice reveals the nature of his prayers for the Ephesians (in 1:15f and 3:14f), and on both occasions he is pleading for God to open the hearts and minds of his readers to grasp and respond to the unfathomable riches of the gospel. He likewise urges the Ephesians themselves to be constant, alert and persevering in prayer and supplication (6:18-19), including for the success of the apostolic ministry.
To be a go-between for the word of Christ, and to bow our knees before the Father to ask him to give comprehension, faith, love and hope to those who hear—this two-fold strategy is as simple a summary of apostolic ministry as could be found (cf. Acts 6:1-4). I wonder if we could draw a circle around the strategic approach of our churches and summarize them so powerfully? This too is a challenge for us as we retool, reboot, relaunch, restart, and all the other re-’s that are facing us at present. Are the basic purposes of our ministries reflected in the various strategies, approaches and actions that we are taking?
If not, it is an ideal to time rethink.
But what about church…
Of course the really significant thing that we are waiting for Paul to address in Ephesians (or failing that, for me to address in this post) is the prime importance of the members of the heavenly assembly actually physically gathering together in local earthly churches. Surely the heavenly church has something to say to us about that?!
It’s a tricky question, with a somewhat surprising answer. And given how long this post already is, it’s one that will have to wait till next week.
(#1) Most translations obscure this, but the ‘inheritance’ (or ‘heritage’) of 1:11 and 18 is the inheritance that belongs to God in his Son, not the inheritance that his people will receive (which is referred to in 1:14). His saints (that is, the ‘us’ of 1:11-12, the Jewish believers like Paul), along with those Gentiles who heard the gospel through Paul (the ‘you’ of 1:13-14), are the people that God has chosen to be his glorious inheritance (cf. Deut 32:8-9; Ps 33:12).
(#2) I’ve always been curious about the three sun-’s of Eph 2:5-6—made alive together, raised up together, seated together. We normally translate this ‘together with Christ’, but in context I strongly suspect that it refers to the ‘you and us’ of 1:11-14 and 2:1-4—to the Jews and the Gentiles who are united in sin, and in being made alive, raised and seated in Christ. Paul goes on to explain at more length in the rest of chapter 2 how Christ in his death unites ‘you Gentiles in the flesh’ with Israel ‘in one body’ (2:16), creating ‘one new man/humanity’ instead of the two. This of course is another major theme of Ephesians—the ‘new humanity’ of Jews and Gentiles that has been created in Christ. It is often flagged in the language of ‘the saints’ (i.e. God’s holy people, the Jews, who now believe in Christ). We are all now ‘saints’ in Christ, but when ‘the saints’ are mentioned in Ephesians, it refers in every case to the Jewish Christians, who were the first to believe in Christ, and through whom the gospel of Christ was taken to the Gentiles. In fact, it’s my own quirky opinion that the opening address of Ephesians (‘to the saints who are in Ephesus and the faithful in Christ Jesus’) flags this theme at the outset—it’s written to ‘the saints’ (Jewish Christians) and to those Gentiles who are now also believers in Jesus Christ. See Eph 1:1, 15, 18; 2:19; 3:8, 18; 4:12; 6:18.
(#3) Eph 3:10 is often used these days to say that the churches (that is, earthly churches) are a demonstration of God’s wisdom; that churches function almost as an apologetic for the gospel, displaying before the world the glory of God’s salvation. Whether that is true or not (and I am doubtful that churches per se are ever given this function in the NT), it’s not what Eph 3:10 is saying. The manifesting of God’s wisdom occurs in the heavenly places, to the rulers and authorities, not to onlookers in the world. Given this, and the flow of thought from chapter 1 through to chapter 3, I think it’s likely that Paul is referring to the heavenly church in 3:10, not earthly congregations.
(#4) The strange phrase in 3:15 has always puzzled me: ‘from whom every (or all or the whole) fatherhood (or family) in heaven and upon earth is named’. I think the best option in context is that Paul is referring to the whole shebang (that’s a technical theology term; don’t let it worry you)—to the new household that God has created for himself (2:19), made up of both Jews and Gentiles, now bearing the one family name, gathered in heaven and here on earth as well.
(#5) We’re used to translating diakonos as ‘servant’, but as the most recent version of the standard Greek dictionary (BDAG) now acknowledges, the word ‘minister’ more fundamentally means ‘intermediary’ or ‘go-between’: ‘1. one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction, agent, intermediary, courier; 2. one who gets something done, at the behest of a superior, assistant to someone’.
(#6) The passage in chapter 4:8-13, which is often taken as a description of what happens in a local congregation where the pastor-teachers equip the saints for the work of ministry, I think actually describes the historical sequence by which the Christ gifted and launched the apostolic ministry, beginning at Pentecost and among ‘the saints’, and unfolding from there. Lionel Windsor has argued for this position persuasively; see Lionel J. Windsor, ‘The Work of Ministry in Ephesians 4:12’, in ‘Tend My Sheep’: The Word of God and Pastoral Ministry (ed. Keith G. Condie; London: Latimer Publications, 2016).
(#7) The ‘new man’ in 4:24 that is ‘created after the likeness of God’ is a reference back to the ‘new man’ that was created in Christ on the cross in 2:15. Paul is urging them to embrace or clothe themselves in the new redeemed identity that they have now in Christ—a whole new humanity of both Jew and Gentile, brought near to God together, with a new mind and a new way of living (which is spelled out in 4:25f.). I also suspect that the reference to the ‘body of Christ’ and the ‘full-grown man’ in 4:12-13 is pointing to the same reality.