Studies in Ephesians #11 – Jesus Over All


Share

Studying the Bible is one of the greatest gifts God has given His people, and within that, Paul’s letter to the church in and around the city of Ephesus is one of my favourite letters for how it has so often spoken to me. ‘Studies in Ephesians’ is my attempt to share, in written form, those lessons and promises that God has revealed to me in my studies through this magnificent book.

Click here for the rest of the series. 

“He demonstrated this power in the Messiah by raising Him from the dead and seating Him at His right hand in the heavens — far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion, and every title given, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put everything under His feet and appointed Him as head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of the One who fills all things in every way.” — Ephesians 1:20-23

At the tail end of the book of Genesis, we have one of the most famous and compelling stories from Israel’s history. The author recounts the life of Joseph, the favoured child of Jacob – hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, before eventually rising to the second-most powerful position in all of Egypt.[1] Because Joseph followed God’s instructions, He was placed into a position that is all but impossible for an Israelite to have reached on their own – the Prime Minister of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh.

Pharaoh also said to Joseph, “See, I am placing you over all the land of Egypt.” Pharaoh removed his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, clothed him with fine linen garments, and placed a gold chain around his neck. … So he placed him over all the land of Egypt. Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, but no one will be able to raise his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt without your permission.”  — Genesis 41:41-44

Being seated next to the king brings great honour and authority, a concept seen time and again throughout history: In the book of Esther, we see Haman promoted to “a higher position than all the other officials” (Esther 3:1), and by the end of that book, the Jew Mordecai is promoted to the same role (Esther 10). The 17th Century French clergyman, nobleman, and statesman, Cardinal Richelieu (also a central character in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers) was chief minister to King Louis XIII, and widely believed to be the second-most powerful man in all of France at the time (more powerful, if you want to adhere to some of the more fantastical fictional adaptations). Or to look to a purely fictional character, Ned Stark, the head of House Stark, Lord of Winterfell, Lord Paramount and Warden of the North, and would become Hand of the King to Robert Baratheon.

In Ephesians, we see a similar rise to power depicted, that of Jesus Christ, who was exalted to authority over all living things – a rise predicted in the Psalms[2]. Paul, in what we have as the last four verses of the first chapter, seems to reach the peak of the argument he set himself to make. We have been through a very basic but fundamental set of theological doctrines, in verses 3 to 13. These doctrines serve to provide a firm foundation not only for the Ephesians, but for the letter as a whole. Paul then enters into a time of prayer, but does not cease his teaching; rather, in two stages, Paul showcases the work of God, which culminates – just as the theological doctrines did – in His Son, Jesus Christ. In the final four verses of this chapter, Paul reveals what all of these theological doctrines, prayers, and teaching have been about – namely, Jesus Christ’s rightful place in authority over all things.

In coming to the end of the first chapter of Ephesians, we reach what is essentially the conclusion of a large introduction – the first paragraph of an essay, so to speak. This introduction serves to preface all that the author intends to write about, introducing the various themes that he intends to carry through the letter. But, more than that, Paul uses the very best techniques of writing to carry those same arguments forward even as he introduces them.

In the previous study we looked at how Paul wanted us to know God better. Specifically, Paul wanted us to know of the hope in God’s calling us as Christians, our place as His special inheritance, and of the power that God has provided us who believe. But as we saw, verses 15 to 23 are actually one whole sentence (as we see in the ESV translation) which means there should really be no spacing between what we have as verses 19 and 20:

“and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places”  — Ephesians 1:19-20 (ESV)

Here we see that the power that God has made available to us is the very same power that was used to raise Jesus Christ from the grave. This is no ordinary resurrection, however – for a given value of the phrase “ordinary resurrection”. Resurrection from the dead was not a new concept when Jesus went to the cross: Elijah raised the son of the Zarephath widow (1 Kings 17:17-22) and Elisha raised the Shunammite woman’s son in 2 Kings 4; throughout Jesus’ ministry, he also raised several people from the dead, including Lazarus (John 11:38-44), a young man (Luke 7:11-17), and a young girl (Luke 8:53-56). However, what is important to note is that Jesus was not only raised from the dead, but God then placed him at His own right hand – circumventing human death altogether. Whereas those who had been raised from death to life before would eventually go on to die a normal human death, Jesus ascended into heaven. God’s power rewrote the laws of death. “If God could reverse for Jesus the universal finality of death and exalt him to the position of highest authority in the universe … then nothing is too difficult for him. Christians have this kind of resource available to them. And because believers are raised with Christ and possess every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in Christ, they have access to the throne room of power. Paul prays that his readers will seize this available capacity.”[3]

This “available capacity” of power that we have access to, as John Stott says, plays a vital role in our lives: “It is on this that the apostle concentrates, for only God’s power can fulfil the expectation which belongs to his call and bring us safely to the riches of the glory of the final inheritance he will give us in heaven.”[4] God’s power is vital for us if we are to live as befits those chosen by God. Without it, it is the equivalent of trying to propel an aircraft carrier with oars, rather than using the nuclear-powered engines already provided.

God’s power also seated Jesus at His own right hand – a position of honour, but also of authority. Like Joseph became second only to Pharaoh, Jesus became second only to God the Father, with all the authority and power that comes from Him. This was no mere figurehead position, but as Paul immediately explains, Jesus was placed at God’s “right hand in the heavens – far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion, every title given, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” Paul, in writing to a people besieged by spirituality, demonic and deitic pagan worship, and magic, describes a Saviour who now has utmost authority over any entity, power, or concept that humans might imagine. Paul is so intent on covering all his bases here that he stacks concept atop concept. Many have tried to study each individual word for “ruler and authority, power and dominion”, to see if they refer to specific deities or demons or spiritual practices, but it is much simpler to understand Paul’s intention as simply referring to anything that could possibly be. This is even more likely when we consider Paul’s next words – “every title given”, or as the ESV translates it, “every name that is named”. Klyne Snodgrass says that, “With this phrase Paul was trying to be inclusive, as if to say, “If there is anything else there, it too is subjected to Christ.””[5] It’s a writer trying to ensure there are no loopholes in his writing – “If it exists, it is subject to Jesus!” Armitage Robinson says: “Above all that anywhere is, anywhere can be—above all grades of dignity, real or imagined, good or evil, present or to come—the mighty power of God has exalted and enthroned the Christ.”[6] Paul goes even further, by adding that Jesus is over all “not only in this age but also in the one to come.” Jesus’ authority over all things is eternal.

Two points are worth noting at this juncture. First, those who have paid any attention to the Bible’s teaching on spiritual warfare will be well aware that the ‘rulers and authorities, powers and dominions’ of the heavenly realms impact our own sphere of existence repeatedly. In Daniel 10, an angel appeared to Daniel in response to his prayers. Writing in the first person, Daniel recounts his experience:

“Don’t be afraid, Daniel,” he said to me, “for from the first day that you purposed to understand and to humble yourself before your God, your prayers were heard. I have come because of your prayers. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me for 21 days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me after I had been left there with the kings of Persia.” — Daniel 10:12-13

What a simultaneously terrifying and comforting account of spiritual warfare: Terrifying because there are demonic forces at work behind the evil rulers of our world; Comforting that God’s own forces are at work countering these demonic influences. So we cannot entirely dismiss Paul’s words as referring only to the heavenly places, because those heavenly places sometimes overlap with our own sphere. Peter T. O’Brien writes that, “Paul believes that the powers are spiritual agencies in the heavenly realms which stand behind earthly and human institutions”[7], an idea that Paul will return to in the sixth chapter.

One might look around at this world, however, and question the idea that anyone is in complete authority over these powers, let alone Jesus Christ. Such a thought, however, assumes complete knowledge – which we as humans don’t have. First, therefore, we have to acknowledge that Paul is writing and looking, at least in part, to a time in the distant future, “the days of fulfilment”, when everything will be brought “together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth in Him.” (Ephesians 1:10) Writing to the Corinthians, Paul expands on this idea:

“Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when He abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death. For God has put everything under His feet.” — 1 Corinthians 15:24-27

Secondly, as Harold W. Hoehner points out, “without [Jesus’] control, things would be much worse.”[8]

The full scale of the war being waged against humanity is unclear, though we know that it is enormous. The specifics are similarly unclear, though we know also that they are insidious, rampant, and unceasing. In The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil, C.S. Lewis affords us a fictional, yet highly likely look behind the curtains of spiritual warfare.

“You say you are ‘delirious with joy’ because the European humans have started another of their wars. … For the first time in your career you have tasted that wine which is the reward of all our labours—the anguish and bewilderment of a human soul”[9]

Importantly, as Lewis shows, the activities of Satan’s minions are easily thwarted if God so chooses to intervene: “I note with great displeasure that the Enemy has, for the time being, put a forcible end to your direct attacks on the patient’s chastity. You ought to have known that He always does in the end”[10]. For as Paul says, God put everything under Jesus’ feet (1:22). Paul is likely here referring to two specific references in the Psalms: First, in Psalm 8, David writes of man, that God “made him lord over the works of Your hands; You put everything under his feet.” (Psalms 8:6) Though this refers primarily to man, Jesus was also man, as well as God. A later Davidic Psalm, 110, is a Messianic Psalm, and relates directly to Jesus as Messiah, the Christ: “This is the declaration of the Lord to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies Your footstool.”” (Psalm 110:1) Though we imagine Paul’s reference to “all things” encapsulates good and bad, its Biblical and immediate context go a long way to showing that Jesus has complete authority over all the demonic beings and activity in the heavenly places – and that one day, He will bring it to a conclusion. The author of Hebrews similarly references Psalms 8 and 110 as he writes: “For in subjecting everything to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. As it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to him.” (Hebrews 2:8) But it will be, and is currently held in check by Him.

Before we close, however, there are a few last words Paul has for us – and they are some of the most difficult to interpret in the whole of the Ephesians. Much ink has been spilled over the nuances of verses 22-23, as interpreters and commentators alike have tried to grasp the correct meanings. What is meant that Jesus is appointed “as head”? What did Paul mean when he wrote “the fullness of the One who fills all things in every way”?

O’Brien contends there is difficulty in interpreting “head” in relation to the body.[11] His solution is to combine “Old Testament notions of ‘head’ … with Greek medical ideas regarding the function of the head in relation to the body and its members”[12]. However, this appears to muddy the waters, seeking explanations beyond what is actually needed or intended. O’Brien sides with Arnold in saying that Paul’s use of “head” in Ephesians (and Colossians) “highlights the personal presence of a powerful one who strengthens the individual through the concept of Christ as “head”.”[13] In situations such as these, I tend to fall back on a single commentator, Harold W. Hoehner, who has proven his worth as a preeminent Ephesians commentator. His view is that ‘head’ here denotes only pre-eminence or prominence and that the idea of authority comes from the context and not from the word itself.”[14] For Hoehner, “words must be seen in their context”, and therefore, “when this word is used in relationship to Christ, it refers to his authority over the church”[15]. Similarly, O’Brien and Hoehner differ on what Paul here means when he says “church”, but Hoehner again seems to take a more direct and sensible approach to interpreting the passage, concluding simply that “in the present context it speaks of Christ’s relationship to the universal church.”[16]

“The other puzzling expression, on the elucidation of which gallons of printer’s ink have been expended,”[17] according to John Stott, is the phrase rendered in the HCSB: “the fullness of the One who fills all things in every way.” For this particular passage, we must skip over all discussion and exposition, for the simple sake of expediency. Hoehner takes 11 pages to deal with the topic, O’Brien 6 pages. We simply do not have time to do justice to a full understanding of this vague phrase. In the end, Hoehner believes that this verse is most likely saying that “the church is filled by Christ who is being filled (by God) entirely or in every way”[18]. This is an idea that, though it is “grammatically more problematic”[19], makes sense to us. “Christ has no limits; nothing eludes his pervasive presence and power. Christ is the one who fills everything completely.”[20] And in turn, God is filling Christ. As Hoehner adds, “God’s fullness which is filling Christ is filling the church.”[21]   Paul returns to this idea later in the letter: “The One who descended is also the One who ascended far above the heavens, that He might fill all things.” (Ephesians 4:10) Jesus is therefore not only in authority over the universal church, but is filling it so that we too may be filled as He is filled. This is, in essence, the means by which we grow into Christ’s likeness – by God filling Jesus, who in turn fills us, as members of His church.

In the end, Paul describes for us the supreme authority and rule of Jesus Christ – not only over the church, over which He is head and working amidst, but over all things, spiritual and earthly, demonic and angelic. The great Puritan theologian, and onetime chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, John Owen, is worth quoting in full here to conclude, as he describes Jesus’ Lordship and headship over the church, as depicted in Ephesians:

“He is at the right hand of God, in the highest exaltation possible, and in full possession of a Kingdome over the whole Creation; having received a name above every name … Thus is he glorious in his Throne, which is at the right hand of the Majesty on high; Glorious in his Commission which is all power in heaven and earth; Glorious in his name, a name above every name, the Lord of Lords, and King of Kings; Glorious in his Scepter, a Scepter of Righteousnesse is the Scepter of his Kingdome; Glorious in his Attendants, his Charrets are twenty thousand, even thousands of Angells, among them he rideth on the Heavens, and sendeth out the voyce of his strength, attended with ten thousand times ten thousands of his holy ones; Glorious in his Subjects, all creatures in heaven and in earth, nothing is left that is not put in subjection to him; Glorious in his way of Rule, and the Administration of his Kingdome, full of sweetnesse, efficacy, power, serenity, holinesse, Righteousnesse and Grace in, and toward his Elect; of Terrour, vengeance, and certain destruction towards the Rebellious, Angells, and men; Glorious in the issue of his Kingdome, when every knee shall bow before him, and all shall stand before his judgement seat; And what a little portion of his Glory is it, that we have poynted to? This is the beloved of the Church, its head, its Husband; this is he with whom we have Communion: but of the whole exaltation of Jesus Christ, I am elsewhere to treat at large.”[22]

[1] Follow the story from Genesis 37-50.
[2] Psalm 8:6; 110:1
[3] Ephesians, William W. Klein, p. 60 (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, eds Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland)
[4] The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, p. 57 (The Bible Speaks Today)
[5] Ephesians, Klyne Snodgrass, p. 77 (The NIV Application Commentary)
[6] St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, J. Armitage Robinson, p. 41
[7] The Letter to the Ephesians, Peter T. O’Brien, p. 144 (The Pillar New Testament Commentary)
[8] Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, Harold W. Hoehner, p. 284
[9] The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil, C.S. Lewis, p. 21 (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics Edition, 2012)
[10] ibid
[11] O’Brien, p. 148
[12] ibid
[13] O’Brien, p. 148, quoting C.E. Arnold
[14] Hoehner, p. 286
[15] ibid
[16] Hoehner, p. 287
[17] Stott, p. 60
[18] Hoehner, p. 298
[19] Klein, p. 62
[20] ibid
[21] Hoehner, p. 299
[22] Communion with God, John Owen (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?cc=eebo;c=eebo;idno=a53713.0001.001;node=A53713.0001.001%3A4.3.1;seq=82;vid=60108;page=root;view=text, accessed 01/06/2016)

Share
0 comments